Category Archives: former major league affiliation

Ballparks categorized by teams whose affiliates formerly used the ballpark.

PK Park, Eugene, Oregon

PK Park, Eugene, OREGON

Number of states:  still 31
States to go:  still 19

Number of games:  1
First game:  July 4, 2012 (Eugene Emeralds 9, Everett AquaSox 1)

(Click on any image to see a larger version.)

I can’t believe that 2012 was the 10th time that Michelle and I hit the road to do a July 4th Minor League Road Trip.  It’s getting a little harder to find a team within striking distance (since I eschew going to the same stadium twice…at least for now…), but since the Emeralds moved from Civic Stadium to their new digs in 2010, a

trip to PK Park was an easy decision in 2012.  We packed up two kids and headed down I-5 for some baseball and fireworks.

I had such mixed feelings about Civic Stadium, and those mixed feelings re-emerged about the new ballpark.  I really enjoyed the rustic feel of the old place, but didn’t enjoy the cramped feel or the sense that I could burn to death at any moment.  A new ballpark was absolutely essential, and yet I was worried that a new ballpark would be so similar to other places that I would no longer feel like I was in a special place.  Additionally, I had some concerns about the Emeralds sharing a facility with the Oregon Ducks.  PK Park was built primarily on the emotion of envy.  When Oregon State won a couple of College

World Series, the Ducks, who had played baseball as a club sport for years, suddenly wondered “why not us?” and built a state-of-the-art facility to attract talent to try to duplicate the Beavers’ success.  (As of 2012, that success looked like it was on the edge of coming: the ’12 Ducks were within one win of making it to Omaha.)  In fact, according to the Ducks’ athletic department web site, PK Park is named for former duck AD Pat Kilkenny.  This fact surprised Michelle and me, who would have bet a C-note on the PK standing for Phil Knight.  He’s built everything else related to Duck athletics…why not this?

In any event, I was concerned that PK Park would have the same shortcomings for Northwest League ball as some spring training ballparks (such as this one) have for

Florida State League ball.  In other words, I don’t like the minor league team to look like they’re just there at the whim of the REAL home team.  But the Emeralds (and, I think, the Ducks) did well to nearly scrub the place clean of any Duck identification.  There were some that could not be avoided:  the looming presence of Autzen Stadium next door, for instance, or the green-and-gold decor, or the Pac 12 decals on the walls behind home plate.  But this felt like the Emeralds’ home rather than a sublet.  The Emeralds’ Hall of Fame was quite well-done: huge banners honoring great Emeralds of the past.  It didn’t matter whether the players went on to greatness with other teams (Ryan Freese, Mike Sweeney) or if they were just MVP for a Northwest League season, never to be really heard from again.  Everyone got a huge banner, and I liked that.  I am pretty sure that those banners are replaced by Duck banners during the NCAA season, which is fine.

Perhaps most telling were two busts of ballplayers I spied…BEHIND a table where an Emeralds worker played the spin-the-wheel-and-get-a-prize game.  I asked her if I could go back there to see the sculptures, and I did…where I found two Ducks.  Net result: they were actively trying to prevent spectators

from seeing Duck history.

Not that the crowd cared much.  This July 4 crowd was there to party.  One of the biggest cheers of the night was when it was announced that the beer sales would be extended through the ninth inning (I would imagine because they figured everyone could sober up during the fireworks show).  And I had this bizarre exchange with a random fan when I was walking 3-year-old Steven around to look at the Emeralds Hall of Fame banners (the kid LOVES that shit).   We had just looked up at the banner commemorating Cory Luebke’s stellar 2007 season for the Emeralds when a fan with a beer talked to me.

FAN:  Is that the beer batter?
ME:  Huh?
FAN:  That guy up there.  Is that the beer batter?
ME:  No.  Not the beer batter.  A guy in the Emeralds Hall of Fame.

The more I think about that exchange, the stranger it is.  He had to overlook the “Emeralds Hall of Fame” label on the banner, the fact that the guy was wearing an Emeralds jersey, the “2007” label, and the fact that the dude was PITCHING in

the photo.  But even if you overlook all of that, his assumption that they’d make a 10-foot long banner for the Beer Batter (the dude on the opposition who reduces beer prices to $3 for 15 minutes if the Emeralds manage to strike him out) is comical, because they’d have to make a giant banner for every single game.  Seems like a breathtaking waste of resources.  I think that this fan is a little like my students who draw nothing but marijuana leaves on every piece of paper they see.  He just had beer on his mind so much that everything he sees became beer.

But I still feel that this was a good crowd.  I can forgive some non-baseball attention on July 4th Fireworks Night.  And I also was surrounded by some pretty awesome people playing with both of my children.  16-month-old Aaron looked over my shoulder and flirted with the entire row behind me at some point, doing high fives and “ET Phone Home” index finger touches with anyone who wanted to all night long, as well as playing “I’ll drop something, say ‘uh-oh!’ and smile at you until

you pick it up” until I put the kibosh on that.

The approximately 6- and 7-year-0ld kids on my left to a liking to Steven and played with him all night long.  They were blown away that Steven could read the scoreboard.  Listening to their conversations were hilarious.  The kids would read a baseball card to Steven, and Steven would tell them what team he played for, and even correct their pronunciation.  Then, one kid said that he had been to Safeco Field for a game: a pretty good feat, actually, since Eugene is about 5 or 6 hours down the road from Seattle.  I was ready for Steven to talk about the games he’d seen at Safeco, but instead, he said “I…have…been………to Idaho.”

I couldn’t stop laughing.  Where the hell did that come from?  Michelle suggested that Steven said

this because he’s been to so many ballgames that they’re not as special to him as Idaho.

The kids were impressed enough with Steven that they offered me a straight-up trade of him for their little sister.  “She’s four and she can’t even read yet!”  I declined.

In the category of “strangest conversation

with an on-deck batter,” I nominate my son and the Emeralds’ Ronnie Richardson.  This game was in the midst of a huge beard obsession for my son.  When his two obsessions–baseball and facial hair–meet, things get pretty intense.  He’d look at on-deck batters and we’d say “Steven, what do you want to say to him?” and he’d cheer (not loud enough to be heard four feet away) “Go, River!” or “Get a hit, Jason!”  But for Richardson, Steven said he wanted to say “I like your beard!”  So, when Ronnie turned to face us–just on the other side of the netting–I said to him the following:   “Mr. Richardson, my son says he likes your beard.  And he’d know…he LOVES beards.”  Ronnie was kind enough to reply with what I believe to be the only possible reply:  a bewildered smile.  I hopethat both he and his beard go far.

As for the Emeralds’ atmosphere, it was fine. 

The on-field stuff was appropriate for single-A ball…stuff between  innings that’s pretty fun and funny.  The ballpark itself was a little antiseptic and reminiscent of every other new small ballpark out there, and it’s a little hard to tell that you’re in Oregon outside of all of the Duck-related color and sights out there.  This makes the ballpark a little difficult to score on the “is there any question where in the United States you are” contest.  On the one hand, there’s nothing in the land that says “Western Oregon” like there was at Civic Stadium.  But Autzen Stadium and the green-and-gold attached to the Ducks’ soccer facility beyond right field does indicate Eugene, which is difficult to extricate from its university as any university town is.  But then, as I said before, I don’t want to feel like I’m at an NCAA event.  I want to feel like I’m at a Northwest League game.  Confusing!

But still fun.  My family and I had a great time hanging out into the night.  It was worth the 1:30 AM arrival home.  We’d never been out with both kids sleeping in the back seat as we drove late into the night before.  I liked that feeling.

We will almost certainly be back.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional Feel:  6.5/10.

The antiseptic corporate feel of the place didn’t say “Oregon” to me, but there’s no doubt the place is in Eugene due to the U or O everywhere.  However, as I say above, that’s a mixed blessing, one which the ballpark dodges with some success with its focus on Emeralds’ history.

Charm:  3/5

Turf is not charming, but “Fowl Territory” is nice.

Spectacle:  4/5

Pretty good overall.  This is the second time Michelle and I have been underwhelmed by an Emeralds’ fireworks show, however.  It might be time for them to seek out a new vendor.

Team Mascot/Name:  4/5

Not sure what Sluggo (right) is.  The giant tree on the left is pretty nice for liberal Oregon and inflates the score, Stanford Tree be damned.

Aesthetics:  4/5

Lovely new ballpark.  Again, however:  Turf.

Pavilion area:  3.5 /5

Works fine–a few things to look at.  Still, I’d like to be able to walk around the ballpark, and there were many, many stairs–way more than I’d like–to get anywhere distant.

Scoreability:  5/5

PK Park did an excellent job here.  I managed to score the game very nicely even while wrangling two boys, and that’s in good part due to the efforts of the crew there.

Fans:  4.5/5

A tad rowdy, but most were very good to my children and having a good time.

Intangibles:  4.5/5

Had a good night there–one my kids will remember for a while.  Us too–both kids fell asleep during fireworks while my wife and I held hands.  Can’t argue with that.

TOTAL:  39/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

Justin Hancock,the starting pitcher for Eugene, was the player I was most impressed with tonight. He threw 5 innings of 1-hit ball, striking out 7.

Jeremy Baltz carries the biggest stick of the night, driving in three runs, two with a double.

Ronnie Richardson and his nice beard score on a big hit in the eighth:  Richardson doubles, then scores on a throwing error by the AquaSox’s Chris Taylor on the relay throw.

Written July 2012.

Alliant Energy Field, Clinton, Iowa

Alliant Energy Field, Clinton, IOWA

Number of states: 22
States to go:  28

Number of games: 1
First game:  April 5, 2007 (Clinton LumberKings 8, Swing of the Quad Cities 4)

(Click on any image to see a larger version.)

Michelle and I did a Midwest swing to start the 2007 season–the fourth year in a row I’d done some

Spring Break minor-league travel…and the first year that I’ve done said travel in northern, rather than Southern, climes.  Just my luck:  my year would coincide with a massive Arctic batch of air covering the entire Midwest.  It cancelled one game on the trip–the game in Appleton, Wisconsin.  But they got opening night in in Clinton, and my wife and I bundled up to see.

Were it not for minor league baseball, I would not have ever heard of

Clinton, a county-seat sized town on the Mississippi.  Alliant Energy Field does reasonably well in the is-there-any-question-where-you-are test, since it’s close enough to the river that I could see a steamboat past the outfield fence.  It also features a decent view of the county courthouse (which sits kitty-corner from the ballpark, across home plate) and some factory belching out a massive amount of smoke.

I want to cut the good people of Clinton a little bit of slack, since it was such a cold night.  But it was opening night, and I therefore was quite disappointed in the turnout…almost nobody made the trip out.  When one considers that the opposing team was the Swing of the Quad Cities, just about a half hour down the road, there should have been

considerably more people.

Of course, the folks at Alliant Energy Field weren’t doing too much to draw the people in.  Outside of the mascot, Louie the LumberKing running about, there was very little excitement in the ballpark–and on a night like this with baseball as poor as we were watching (nine errors…these were not only less-talented ballplayers, they were rusty less-talented ballplayers), a little something more to get us cooking would have been nice, even if it were merely some ushers talking to us a little bit.

Alliant Energy Field has an interesting history–it’s just that spectators have to look for it.  A plaque

informs us that the then-Riverview Stadium was opened in 1937 as a WPA project.  So why does it feel so antiseptic and charmless now?  Is it the bizarrely-scary note that Community Service Workers (are these charming volunteers or those serving work-release sentences) appear to check in at an office inside the ballpark?  (Do they sell concessions?)  Is it that I’m bothered that a ballpark originally constructed in part to give work to desperate Depression-era workers, is now being pimped out to a sponsor (it appears that metal “Alliant Energy Field” plates have been affixed over places where the old “Riverview Stadium” names had been etched in stone)?  Is it the antiseptic metal bleachers that have been added in the intervening years throughout the ballpark?  I don’t know, but I wasn’t thrilled with it.

The line of the night goes, as usual, to my wife.  She wasn’t a fan of Louie the Lumberking, Clinton’s mascot.  Instead of a Lumberjack, she felt Louie looked like “the Burger King king’s porn star brother.”  Good assessment?  I leave that up to the reader.


Looking back, this might be the second-coldest night on which I’ve ever seen a game. 

(I recall my game in Wichita being a lot worse.)  But my wife and I got through it all right, simply because we were prepared.  I might have been the only person in America who bought long underwear in preparation for my Spring Break.  The only problem I have with the cold night is how to score.  Michelle (who started her own scorebook on this trip…cool!) wore driving gloves.  I didn’t want to spend money on driving gloves…I wasn’t confident they’d keep me warm, and I was scared that my handwriting wouldn’t be up to snuff.  I brought ski gloves, and spent the game looking like a snow bunny version of one-gloved-wonder Michael Jackson.

So, on the whole, I can’t tell if it was actually the ballpark or a convergence of events that came together (subpar baseball on a really cold night), but I can’t say I was terribly impressed with Alliant Energy Field.  I do hope to head back to Iowa, however…as the Swing of the Quad Cities’ ballpark in Davenport looked absolutely gorgeous as we drove by.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel:  7/10
Not bad here–hard by the river and within viewing distance of a local landmark.

Charm:  2.5/5
I bet an old ballpark like this could be presented better, but I got very little out of Alliant Energy Field in this department.

Spectacle:  3/5
At this low level of ball, they could have stepped it up just a touch.

Team mascot/name:  3/5


Louie and me.  In the picture, the photographer is shaking from the cold and I am in the process of telling Louie that we think he looks like a porn star.  Is there a huge Iowa lumber industry that I’m unaware of?  I’ll assume yes, and think that the name is good.  But Louie?  I’m unimpressed

Aesthetics:  3/5
Not too special, but I liked being able to see boats go by.

Pavilion area:  3/5
A bit of a nice area wrapped around the left-field foul pole, but otherwise, nothing special.

Scoreability:  3/5

Fans:  1/5
Yes, it was cold, but for opening night, this was simply a sad turnout–both small and surly.

Intangibles:  1/5
Not a banner night.  Just didn’t click with me.

TOTAL:  26.5/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

Mauro Gomez’s first-inning three-run home run gives the LumberKings a lead they never give up.

Grant Gerrard gathers three hits.

John Whittleman walks four times…but I’ll always remember him for dropping a pop to third that–and I don’t say this lightly or often–I likely would have been able to catch.  (Of course, I never would have made the team, but that’s another issue.)  It’s one of two errors for Whittleman, four for Clinton, and nine…nine…in the game.

(Written April 2007.)

Smokies Park, Kodak, Tennessee

Smokies Park, Kodak, TENNESSEE

Number of states:  18
States to go:  32

Number of games:  1
First game:  July 27, 2006 (Tennessee Smokies 6, Carolina Mudcats 5)

(Click on any image to see a larger version.)

“Hi, Paul,” the friendly email, subject line “Continuing Your Quest,” began.  “I was searching the internet for promotions ideas and I came across your website…I see that you have not been to Tennessee yet.  I am not saying

that you will have a better experience than at any other minor league game, but I can assure you that you will enjoy yourself…I look forward to hearing from you and hope you will consider the Smokies for your Tennessee trip.”

With that email from the Smokies’ Dan Blue, I was hooked.  The idea that a guy in the front office of a minor league club

would take the time to actually invite me to a game…well, that flattered me.  Since Tennessee was on the list for that summer anyway, I told him sure.  He then tried to talk me into a VIP package.  It was a little spendy, but it included killer seats, a free hat, and a chance to throw out the first pitch.  That sounded pretty good, but since there would be four of us traveling, I wanted all four of us to have something for that kind of money; not just one of us throwing out the pitch and one of us getting a hat.  He threw in an autographed baseball and a chance to announce a batter over the PA.  SOLD!  We divided out the tasks:  Rob would throw out the first pitch, Yolonda would get the hat, Michelle would get the ball, and I would get to go to the press box and announce a batter.  It was official:  I was a VIP.  Seriously.  Look–I really was:

With that, the fun began.  Rob had to get his arm in gear for the first pitch.  We snuck past a “no admittance” sign

back by one of the foul poles and got Rob’s arm into shape.  Nobody stopped us…indeed, I’m not sure anybody noticed us.  We all threw a baseball around, and Rob warmed up.

Next, Rob made it to the field.  He was one of about eight “first” pitches.  Included in that group was the Shoney’s bear and a boy celebrating his tenth birthday.  Here’s where we learn Rob is a fairly sick man.  The birthday boy didn’t know why he was on the field–I guess his parents wanted

it to be a surprise.  So Rob told him:  “I think you’re going to sing.  Do you know the words?  ‘Oh say can you see…'”  The kid would have nothing of it.  “I don’t know that!”  Rob said “Well, how about this one?  ‘Take me out to the balllllgaaame…'”  He said he could sing that.  But he threw out a pitch instead.  As did Rob…a strike into the glove of left-handed pitcher Bill White, who signed the ball (which Rob subsequently annotated).


With that, we got going with the game.

What a gorgeous ballpark Smokies Park is.  The outfield is surrounded by hills.  They’re not quite as gorgeous as the nearby Great Smokies, but they provide a lovely backdrop.  In fact, just past the right-field wall, there’s what

might be the best picnic-table-for-baseball-fans in the US.  It was, at least at one time, the KOA Kampground for East Knoxville.  I currently cannot find a KOA listing for East Knoxville, but the picnic table remains.  There’s a good view of the field from all seats and just about all of the concourse.  One can circumnavigate the stadium on a walkway, or sit and chill on a grassy hill beyond the outfield wall.  On a night warmer than Waffle House syrup, it’s nice to see the hills fade into darkness behind quality double-A baseball.

The Smokies did well balancing the wacky promotions with the baseball.  There were some promotions between innings–a three-legged race which caused a pair of siblings to become exceedingly angry with each other, for starters–but for the most part, they let the baseball take center stage.  Dan came by to hang out with us for a couple of innings, chatting about his past experiences in baseball with me and my wife–a veteran of the minor league baseball milieu.  He addressed the unique challenges of promoting the Smokies; since they play so close to the most-visited national park in the USA (in fact, there’s a National Park office in the stadium building), about 25% of their visitors are

tourists.  It certainly held true to my experience–I chatted with a mother from Florida for a good part of the game.

Next came my big moment.  In the fifth inning, I headed up to the box with Dan and awaited my big moment announcing a batter.

This was no consolation prize to Rob’s throwing out of the first pitch.  I wanted to do this.  Big time.  I serve as the PA announcer for the football team at the high school where I work.  The key to it, as I see it, is to avoid cheerleading for the home team, and to keep the voice under control.  In fact, during high school games, when I give credit to the chain crew, spotters, and scoreboard operator, I finish by saying:  “And I

‘m Bob Sheppard.”  So to avoid the sins of some other PA guys I’ve heard, I knew what I would do.  Take it easy.  Take it slow.  Give the number, position, and name.  Savor the syllables.  But at Smokies Park, I actually felt a little bit guilty taking a batter away from George Yardley, the PA announcer.  He may well be the best PA guy I’ve ever heard at a minor league ballpark…a deep, deep voice with just enough of a gorgeous pecan-pie Southern accent to remind me where I was. George: you’re the man.

I didn’t expect to enjoy being in the press box as much as I did.  The guys–mostly good ol’ Tennessee boys–made me feel exceedingly welcome.  They clearly loved doing what they did for a living.  They have the best view of the game of anyone.  The scoreboard operator was even wearing a glove.  They were enjoying a conversation with me about my ballpark travels as Mark Reynolds came to the plate…

and that conversation was soon

interrupted by their whoops.  Reynolds hit a massive home run off of the scoreboard.  It was awesome to be there for what turned out to be the biggest play of the game.  In the midst of the cheering, George grabbed a stuffed bear, squeezed it so that it made a heartbeat sound, and held the bear to the microphone.  That sound reverberated throughout the ballpark.

Unfortunately, I had to follow that up, so it’s possible nobody heard my big moment.  George said:  “And now, to announce the next batter, here is V.I.P. Paul Hamann.”

All I wanted was a batter with a kick-butt name; ideally a Hispanic one (I, like Sheppard, love pronouncing those Latino players’ names).  And I got it.  Complete with pregnant pauses, and without a hint of homerism:

“Now batting…the first baseman…number thirty-one…Augustin…Murillo.”

Sheppardesque?  Yardleyish? Maybe not.  But damn fun.  (For the record, Murillo popped to the catcher.)

Ever wonder how they figure

out how far a home run is hit?  I saw the incredibly scientific process take place right in front of my eyes.  Somebody asked:  “Where did that ball hit?”  They figured out that it hit an advertisement on the base of the scoreboard.  After some argument as to whether it reached there on the fly or on the bounce, the best PA guy in the minor leagues got out a list of distances.  He ran his finger down to the distance to the base of the scoreboard, added a few feet, and queried:  “Does 441 feet sound okay?”  They agreed, and he informed the crowd in his million-dollar voice:  “That last home run by Mark Reynolds traveled 441 feet!”  Not exactly a scientific process, but they did the best they could with the tools they had.

I don’t have anything bad to say about Smokies Park, and that is reflected in its very high score.  Does the score have anything to do with the fact that Dan bumped up his VIP package to include getting me onto the microphone?  Absolutely!  This isn’t Congress.  This isn’t Consumer Reports. Bribery is completely acceptable here.  (Minor league salespeople everywhere:  take note!).

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel:  7/10
Could do a little better here:  perhaps it’s hard to feel local-Tennessee when one is surrounded by so many tourists.  But the surrounding hills help this score.

Charm:  5/5
Lovely architecture and nice surroundings.

Spectacle:  5/5
My VIP experience was filled with baseball-centric spectacle.

Team mascot/name:  4/5

Three mascots.  The top one is from Shoney’s:  he threw out a first pitch after Rob.  In the middle is a shark from Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies.  At the bottom is Slugger with the annoying promotions guy.  The team name is great, and I like the multiple mascots, who were fun while never interfering with the game.  But I’m not a big fan of the generic name “Slugger” (or of his sister’s name, “Diamond,” not pictured).

Aesthetics:  4.5/5
Quite lovely.

Pavilion area:  4/5

Scoreability:  4/5

Fans:  5/5

Intangibles:  5/5
Just tremendous.  A great VIP night with fellow baseball-lovers.  One of the best nights I’ve ever had at a ballpark.

TOTAL:  43.5/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

Mark Reynolds is the difference-maker, hitting a three-run homer as far as you’ll ever see a ball hit.

Augustin Murillo went 2-for-4 with two runs.

Brett Carroll his a 2-run home run for the Mudcats to make it closer.

Ria Cortesio serves as the first-base umpire, making this the first baseball game with a female umpire I’ve ever attended–at any level.

(Written August 2006.)

Cooper Stadium, Columbus, Ohio

Cooper Stadium, Columbus, OHIO

Number of states:  17
States to go:  33

First and last game:  July 25, 2006 (Columbus Clippers 9, Durham Bulls 1)

(Cooper Stadium is no longer in use for baseball as of the 2009 season.)

(Click on any image to view a larger version.)

To be sure, there were quite a number of issues with Cooper Stadium.  Its age shows, and not gracefully.  I dislike the ancient PA system, the charmless pavilion, and the less-than-understated Carmina Burana playing

as the team takes the field.  However, this July evening turned into a marvelously fun evening with loads of friends–an evening I was pleased to have.

Rob, Yolonda, Michelle and I made it to Cooper Stadium after a day at South Point, Ohio (near the tri-point of Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia).  Buddies Joe and Alison gathered loads of friends and led us to the tenth row behind the third-base dugout.  As happens so many times when I get together with buddies for a ballgame, there were many bizarre and memorable events to pass along.

For starters, the whole bunch of us nearly died in the second inning.  The Clippers’ Jeff Karstens pitched to the Bulls’ Elijah Dukes.  He must have fooled him very badly on a pitch, because as Dukes missed for strike two, he released his bat and it went flying behind him.

And right towards us.

Right the hell towards us.

Even if I had wanted the bat and been foolish enough to reach up for the bat, it likely would have just hit my forearms.  So I joined all of my friends in ducking down very low.  I did not want to get hit by a flying bat. 

As buddy Joe (wearing the Orioles hat in the photo) put it, “I’d prefer to go the rest of my life without the little voice in my head saying ‘you’re not ducking deep enough’ ever again.”

As we dusted ourselves off and made sure all of our appendages remained, and as we confirmed that the people a couple of rows behind us were also unhurt, we missed Dukes grounding out to third.  We also missed Dukes being ejected by the home plate umpire.  This ejection led the Devil Rays to finally get so fed up with Dukes (in part because he had earlier said that “the major leaguers shower in Perrier while we get sewer water”) that they suspended him for the rest of the season.  I appreciate the D-Rays’ priorities.  Only AFTER he threw a bat at me did they toss him.  Indeed, perhaps

the D-Rays knew that I was a sports official–in the year when Delmon Young chucked a bat at the home plate umpire, I would merely be the latest official a Durham Bull threw a bat at in 2006.

When I wasn’t in danger of dying, there were a few things I liked about Cooper Stadium.  They did a fine job respecting the Clippers’ history, which, as of 2006, meant New York

Yankees’ history.  I love ballparks that have lineups from past years on display, and Cooper Stadium had artists’ renditions of lineups from every year from the Clippers’ history as a Yankees’ affiliate.  The mixture of all-time greats with who-the-heck-is-thats is one of my favorite parts of being at a ballpark, and Cooper Stadium does it well.  As of the end of the 2006 season, the Yankees ended their relationship with the Clippers.  I do hope that they keep the old Yankees’ pictures up; when I’m at a minor league ballpark, I want to see the local minor league team’s history, not the history of the major league team.  Wichita, Tulsa, and High Desert all celebrate past minor leaguers from who played at that park even after affiliate shifts.  We’ll see if the Clippers have that same sense of history, or if their new parent club orders the relics of recent Yankee history taken down.

No other aspects of the ballpark blew me away.  I was a little taken aback by the fact that a cemetery is visible beyond the outfield fence.  When my mind and eyes wander during a Clippers’ game, they wander to headstones. A particularly massive home run at Cooper Stadium would not impress the fans so much as remind them of their mortality.  The pavilion is typically dank and dull.  They try to make it up with a miniature golf course.  I’m not a big fan of such unnecessary distractions from the baseball–any fan who’d prefer golf to

baseball isn’t a fan at all–and on top of that, the mini-golf course is so poorly and hastily assembled that it’s actually worse than it could be.

This is also my second visit to a Yankees’ affiliate, and the second time that the team played “New York, New York” after a victory.  I hated that just as much here as I did in Battle Creek.  We’re not in New York, and these aren’t the Yankees.  Let’s keep that music special for Yankee Stadium.

Occasionally, it’s a close race to actually be a charming old ballpark–the old, covered seating with beams obstructing views is a blast from the past–but I’m afraid that there are just too many negatives.  Nevertheless, I’ll probably be back. With so many friends so close by, I’ll certainly be back to see if they do any upgrades–and if those upgrades will maintain the current sense of history.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel:  7/10
The ballpark’s strong sense of Clippers’ history earns points here.

Charm:  2/5
Not much.  Old in and of itself does not mean charming, and Cooper Stadium demonstrates this.

Spectacle:  3.5/5
Not bad for the triple-A level, although the promotions they had were occasionally annoying.

Team mascot/name:  3/5

Joe, me, and Krash the First Mate.  Not pictured:  Lou Seal.  Nothing offensive or impressive about any mascot-related matters.

Aesthetics:  2.5/5
Sort of old and dusty–and the view is of a cemetery, which is creepy.

Pavilion area:  1.5/5

Scoreability:  3/5

Fans:  5/5
Great friends.  I look forward to going to the new place with them.

Intangibles:  2.5/5
I had a fun night, but in the end, this place didn’t leave me with a positive impression.

TOTAL:  29.5/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

The Clippers rough up the Bulls’ Doug Waechter for four first-inning runs.

Columbus’s nine runs include five unearned runs off of four Bull errors, including a pair by B.J. Upton.

B.J. Upton and Bronson Sardinha homer.

Jeff Karstens pitches 7 innings of 1-run ball.

(Written August 2006.)

Stater Bros. Stadium, Adelanto, California

Stater Bros. Stadium, Adelanto, CALIFORNIA

Number of states:  still 13
States to go:  37

First game:  April 8, 2006 (Inland Empire 66ers 9, High Desert Mavericks 0)

(Stater Bros. Stadium has since been renamed Mavericks Stadium.)

(Click on any image to view a larger version.)

It ain’t an Iowa cornfield, but Stater Bros. Stadium might as well be.  After a long drive, way past the very last L.A. suburb, well into the desert, way past an exit on I-15 and out of visual contact with anywhere that it looks like someone could live, there’s a ballpark that springs up quite literally out of nowhere.

Obviously, there has to be someone around to go to the ballgames, and in this case, the ballpark lies 10-20 miles from the reasonably-populated towns of

Hesperia and Apple Valley.  The ballpark itself is a few miles down the road from the much-smaller town of Adelanto.  But those who are driving up from the L.A. area will never see those towns.  It’s possible to drive into the desert, watch a California League game, and then drive home without being in a city of any size.  And I love that experience.

In such an atmosphere, the ballpark can’t help but pass the “is there any question where you are” test.  The High Desert Mavericks are clearly in the desert.  The ballpark is surrounded by scrub and sand. 

Between the outfield wall and the backing fence lies a stretch of sand.  The only other building visible is the adjacent Bravo Burgers.  On a clear night (as almost all of them are in the desert), it’s amazingly dark and quiet.  It was fantastic.  There’s nothing to be seen or heard in the world but a baseball game…and that is a great way to spend any day.

When one is surrounded by baseball, it’s good to be surrounded in a place where baseball is valued.  The folks at Stater Bros. Stadium have done a good job celebrating their team.  They have an “alumnus of the night,” who they announce on the radio over the PA, and have a write-up of their recent

exploits in the minors.  The columns around the pavilion are covered with the opening day lineups for every season in High Desert’s recent history.  The 1999 team here has already had 3 starters make the majors…not too shabby for High A ball.  There are ushers who will bring you your food or drink in all sections–not just for the high rollers–so nobody needs to miss a pitch.  When I see things like this, I can’t help but compare Stater Bros. Stadium with The Diamond at Lake Elsinore, the other ballpark I saw on this trip.  Where Lake Elsinore had so much non-baseball related stuff going on the baseball seemed incidental, at High Desert, the baseball was central.  Indeed, it was essential.  Kids actually watched the game at High Desert. Each ballpark had a grassy area by the right field foul pole.  While at Lake Elsinore there were kids whaling on each other, at High Desert, most of the kids actually watched the game, and only a very few rolled around on the grass and pounded on each other.  Parks that value baseball can get people to enjoy it.

The park is a little bit nondescript, but that feels appropriate given the sparse surroundings.  The tan brick matches the desert–all the more reason to focus on the baseball.  People can enjoy a meal at the Hard Ball Cafe, at least until the Hard Rock Cafe’s lawyers get wind of it.  The stadium also features what must be the most austere skyboxes ever constructed:

My good time at the ballpark was enhanced by the fact that the Mavericks were playing a Mariners affiliate, the Inland Empire 66-ers.  I’d seen many of

these players play at Everett, and it was nice to see them up a couple of levels.  It was also nice to see them win so handily.  It was cold, and while 1386 people made it to the game (not bad, considering where we were), not many stuck around.  I moved from seat to seat to keep warm, and I finally settled a little ways behind the Inland Empire dugout.  I guess there’s no clubhouse or locker room under the stadium, because 66er players kept walking up the aisle between the seats and the grass to get to a room upstairs.  I stayed there to take pictures after the game, and to watch one of the guys say hi to what appeared to be a new girlfriend.  I felt like a little bit of a doofus taking pictures of the guys, and few of them came out, but it still was fun to watch them all walk by like that.

After the game, put your car’s radio on scan.  I was able to pick up the last parts of baseball broadcasts originating in Denver and Seattle.  There are benefits to being in the middle of nowhere for baseball fans.

Then, as throughout the night, I felt completely immersed in baseball, and it is to the credit of the people at Stater Bros. Stadium.  I can certainly see a day where they no longer feel it’s financially viable to play ball in the middle of nowhere, but I hope it isn’t soon.  It’s a tremendous place to see a baseball game, simply because there’s nothing else in sight.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel:  9/10
Tremendous here.

Charm:  3.5/5
The ballpark is quite charming to me, although it could show a little more personality.

Spectacle: 3/5
Could do a hair more here, given the level of ball.

Team mascot/name:  3/5


Wooly Bully and me–in this photo, Wooly is the better-looking one.  The name “Mavericks” is fine, appropriate and local. but the name “Wooly Bully” is taken, I’m afraid.

Aesthetics:  4.5/5
Striking.

Pavilion area:  4.5/5
Very nice here…a lot of Mavericks history, and all of it within view of the field.

Scoreability:  3.5/5
Some minor slip-ups.

Fans:  4/5
I give them credit for being baseball-focused, for dealing with the cold well, and for getting all the way out to the ballpark to begin with.

Intangibles:  4.5/5
I couldn’t stop smiling in thrilled disbelief that this place even exists.  It has a real Field of Dreams vibe about it

TOTAL:  39.5/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

Robert Rohrbaugh is the pitching star, striking out 6 in 5 2/3 innings.  Three relievers finish a 7-hit shutout.

Yung-Chi Chen has four hits, including two doubles, along with a stolen base and two runs batted in.

Cashman Field, Las Vegas, Nevada

Cashman Field, Las Vegas, NEVADA

Number of states:  12
States to go:  38

Number of games: 1
First game:  April 6, 2006 (Las Vegas 51s 7, Fresno Grizzlies 2)

(Click on any image to see a larger version.)

2006 marked my third trip to Las Vegas.  I had been twice earlier for my fantasy football league’s draft (recommended…nothing’s more fun than drafting on a Saturday, then watching all the games at the same time on a Sunday), and as a result, all I had ever experienced of Las Vegas–and, for that matter, of Nevada–was the airport and the

Strip.  A $15 cab ride from the Stratosphere at the north end of the Strip changed all that.  It brought me to Cashman Field and a chilly April opening night for the Las Vegas 51s.  I was quite pleased with what I found there.

First, let me state a point of confusion.  I’m not 100% sure what the name of this place is.  The signs on the outside call it Cashman Stadium, but the 51’s website refers to it as Cashman Field.  The place is obviously in the midst of some terrible identity crisis.  With contradictory information, I’m going to go with “Field.”  The place is fairly small, and therefore feels more like a field than a stadium to me.

The most important part of my ballpark rankings is regional feel.  I want there to be no question where in the U.S. I am when I’m sitting in the stands of a ballpark.  What would that look like in Vegas?  Slots?  Showgirls?  Garish neon?  That’s not exactly a good

thing at a ballpark.  Cashman Field goes another direction:  it provides a quiet oasis from what one normally associates with Las Vegas, and I appreciate that a good deal.  There were very few promotions–which I like when the baseball is AAA-quality.  All we have to tell us we’re in Vegas are a combination of palm trees and desert mountains past the outfield fence.  (Yes, I know that we have palm trees and desert vistas in southern California.  But I know that I’m not in Southern California because I can SEE the mountains here.)

So while “quiet oasis” isn’t exactly what one thinks of when one thinks of Las Vegas, I like the feel and will rank it high in the “regional feel” category.  When I’m in Las Vegas, my brain can only handle three days of the sensory overload, and even then, I can get a little overwhelmed by the constant lights and BINGBINGBINGBINGBING sounds of the place.  Surely I’m not the only tourist who feels that way.  Unfortunately, we’ve grown to have almost as much bingbingbing in our ballparks as at a Vegas casino.  When I’m enjoying high-quality AAA baseball, I don’t need it.  Cashman Field recognizes this, and even winks at Vegas’ reputation with a cool “only in Vegas” advertising that rings the inside of the ballpark (things like “We love the night games” and “All hits, all the time.”)  The net result was a positive night at the ballpark.

Architecturally, the place has positives and negatives.  Like all three of the warm-weather ballparks

I visited on this trip, it offers the ability to watch the game while on the concourse buying food (especially welcome for most of the fans on this Thirsty Thursday Dollar Beer night).  I do like being able to motor around the ballpark without sacrificing my ability to score the game.  There are grassy hill areas by both foul poles, but there is no trespassing on the grass.  When I was there, I thought that was a shame, because I was picturing that being a nice place to picnic on gorgeous desert summer nights…but then, the next night in Lake Elsinore, I realized they were actually just preventing eight-year-old boys from beating the crap out of each other, a common activity on such hills.  On the negative side, its setting is well north of the strip and downtown, and it adjoins a convention center and some sort of museum, which makes it a little nondescript.  There’s nothing interesting about its external architecture.  Although I like the combination of tans and reds, Cashman Field’s connection to other buildings takes away any interest in its footprint (and makes my traditional pregame hike-around-the-ballpark a lot more taxing and arduous, especially on the bum knee I lugged along).  In the no-excuses department, I was really disappointed to find a prodigious amount of trash in the front row upon my arrival at the park.  This was opening day!  I guess they hadn’t bothered fully cleaning up since the last event there, which I believe was a major league tune-up at least four days prior.

Cashman Field has the kind of history-of-baseball-in-the-area stuff I like on its concourse, but they do some things that make it not as nice as it is in places where it’s done well (like Wichita or Spokane).  They have a number of past greats for the Las Vegas Stars and other minor league ballclubs from the city, which I enjoyed, especially because I had not heard

of so many of the ballplayers, such as Paul Faries.  They had Dodgers history mapped out as well.  Even though the 51s are a Dodger affiliate, I didn’t care for these.  I love Jackie Robinson and all, but because his story does not involve Las Vegas, his tribute seemed out of place.  And it certainly seemed out of place when their walk of fame also featured famous movie aliens.  Yes, that’s right…Tommy Lasorda is in the Hall of Fame with Jabba the Hut.  I’m all for wackiness, but this has all the markings of a ballclub and stadium that is simply trying too hard.  Ease up, guys.  This sort of stuff is out of character for a ballpark where, for the most part, they let the baseball be the star.

Speaking of trying too hard, let’s talk for a second about the nickname

of 51s and the mascot:  Hate them.  I never, ever, want marketing to be so stinking obvious.  Sure, I guess we could argue that the nickname is locally appropriate, but I don’t think that was the primary reason for its selection.  It’s clear to me that the primary reason that the name was changed to 51s was to increase the number of fuzzy items that would be sold, as well as hats, etc.  The alien they have on their hat isn’t even intimidating looking (like the guys from Independence Day).  He looks wise and friendly (like E.T.).  Don’t get me wrong:  I loved E.T., and cried when I first saw it at age 12.  But puh-leez.  What’s on a hat should be something that shows pride, tradition, or elicits intimidation.  The 51s go oh-for-three in that regard.

Opening Day 2006 in the minors meant there were replacement umpires on the field.  The minor league umpires, after not enjoying a pay raise in nearly a decade, were given an offer whose

miniscule pay raise was almost entirely counteracted by raises in their health insurance deductible.  When they struck to get a fair deal, Minor League Baseball decided to recruit replacement/scab umpires.  News accounts said that the replacement umpires were recruited from college, high school, and even Little League.

This was the background for a fascinating conversation I overheard.  A young guy in the stands came down to the front row during warmups and called some 51s player over.  He was a striking ump.  The players were very friendly and supportive; I think they were worried about what they’d see in the replacements. Also, many of them had likely risen through the minors alongside these umps.  The players asked what they could do to help the umps.  The ump said “Don’t go crazy, but if you could make it clear you don’t like a call, that’d help a lot.”  Sure enough, there was an ejection that day…a Fresno player got run for arguing a called third strike.  I feel like I know why.

This night also marked the first time my travels overlapped with the travels of someone else trying to make it to all the ballparks.  I met Doug and Carrie.  They’re a married couple

who were actually ahead of me in the quest to get to a minor league game in all fifty states!  They had a little bit of an advantage in that both of them are in the military, so their jobs have brought them within driving distance of a lot more ballparks than most people.  We enjoyed a long stretch of very nice conversation about ballparks.  I liked Cashman Field a lot more than they did, as it turns out.  We talked about major league parks we both have liked through the years–San Francisco, Kansas City, Boston.  Carrie helped me with some missed scoring decisions.  We were headed in opposite directions:  I had just come from San Diego the night before, and they were on their way there the next night.  Still, our paths crossed on this night, and I do hope they cross again.  Guys, drop me an email if you’re ever headed up to the Pacific Northwest.  Tacoma, Safeco, Everett, Portland, Salem…I’d love to join you.  The pretzels are on me.

So, on the whole, a nice quiet night at a place where the baseball was in the foreground.  It wasn’t a perfect ballpark, but on the whole, I felt like the 51s understood what a night at the ballpark should be about.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel:  8/10
I’m going against the grain on this one.  The ballpark was not much at all what I picture Las Vegas to be, except for the lovely desert mountain views.  But that’s what I liked about it, actually, so that’s why I give it a high score here.  If Vegas is a desert of noise, this place was an oasis of quiet baseball.

Charm:  2.5/5
Occasionally overblown in this department.

Spectacle: 4/5
Very few promotions, which I like for AAA ball, but still enough appropriate distraction if that’s what one likes.

Team mascot/name:  1/5


Cosmo and me.  Don’t like the name at all–never let your marketing be so transparent.  And this guy is goofy-looking.

Aesthetics:  3/5
The park itself is a bit dumpy, but the mountain views are lovely.

Pavilion area:  3.5/5

Scoreability:  3.5/5
Missed a key scoring decision, and the scoreboard guy was a hair slow at times.

Fans:  2/5
This part was bizarre.  Perhaps most surprisingly, most of the fans around me weren’t from Las Vegas.  Not at all surprisingly, most of the fans on Dollar Beer Night were smashed and idiotic.  Doug and Carrie actually brought this score up a point.

Intangibles:  5/5
I just kept enjoying how quiet it was, and what a nice break it was from the bingbingbing.

TOTAL:  32.5/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

The Grizzlies’ Brad Hennessey gives up 7 runs, but only 1 of them is earned due to 2 errors by his teammate Tomas de la Rosa’s 2 errors.

Ed Smith Stadium, Sarasota, Florida

sarasotainprogress

Ed Smith Stadium, Sarasota, FLORIDA

Number of states: 9
States to go: 41
Number of games: 1
First game:  April 11, 2005 (Sarasota Reds 5, Dunedin Blue Jays 1)

Ed Smith Stadium and Sarasota were my introduction to the Florida State League and to the ballparks the big-league clubs use for their Spring Training.  It was my introduction to High-A baseball and the Florida State League.  While I was impressed with the quality of baseball I saw on this night–it’s a long way from the short-season ball I’m accustomed to seeing from my home minor-league team at Memorial Stadium in Everett–there was something missing about the entire sarasotafromrfculture of this ballpark that I’m concerned might be unique to the Florida State League and playing ball in a park that the big club uses in the spring.

First of all, there were only 237 fans in the ballpark.  Sarasota is a town of 52,000 that was packed to the gills, I’m sure, with folks on their Spring Break like I was.  Why only 237 fans?  I have a hypothesis.  As little as a week earlier, the residents of Sarasota could watch actual major leaguers in spring training games.  Perhaps they feel like it’s not worth their time to watch high-A ball.  Now, I haven’t seen a Major League Spring Training game (and it’s unlikely I will in the foreseeable future…you know, I’m a teacher and all that, and my spring break is in April).  I’m certain I’d enjoy it if I ever did.  But I have a suspicion that these aren’t as enjoyable to a guy who likes stories as minor league games are.  The stories of a spring training are interesting…who’s headed up, who’s headed down, and the like.  But the games?  They don’t count.  It’s not worth it to say they do.  The primary purpose is not to win or lose, but to impress people.  I suppose that one could argue the same in the minor leagues, and there’s a bit of truth to that.  But the games count for something.  The stories are deeper and longer…they are stories of multiple years, where spring training stories are about sarasotaretirednumberswho will be around that year.

Second, I feel like the town has adopted a major league club, not a minor league club.  Unlike places like Yakima or Batavia, Sarasota didn’t have any “Past Sarasota Players Who Made The Majors” plaques lying around.  The history they honored in the pavilion was Cincinnati’s history, not Sarasota’s.  Cincinnati’s retired numbers on the wall?  I think that’s wonderful for spring training, sure, but it feels dreadfully out of place for the minor league game.  The kids are trying to make the show.  After that, let’s worry about striving to retire the numbers.  Plaques and sculptures in the pavilion dedicated to Cincinnati Reds history?  Give me a break.  Single-A ball is not the place for that.  Leave them up for Spring Training, then focus on Florida after that.  We’re about a thousand miles and three levels of ball from Cincinnati.  Let’s celebrate who came from here, not the destination that many of them won’t ever see.sarasotafoulpole

This might also explain why such a wonderful night of baseball didn’t have the accoutrements I normally associate with minor league ball.  It looked like there wasn’t a serious effort to get butts in the seats.  There was no mascot, not a lot of music, few between-innings promotions, and very little excitement.  Don’t get me wrong…I don’t want a circus.  But I do want something to make it feel like the ballclub is happy I’ve come,sarasotabatsculpture particularly when I’ve come so far.  But I get the sense that they don’t want, need, or expect a crowd.  Perhaps they make their year’s worth of money during Spring Training…I don’t know.  But I know it didn’t feel right.

I haven’t had a chance to see any other Florida State League teams play ball–but I’m wondering if they aren’t faced with similar issues.  It feels to me like the high-A ballclubs are not valued for their own sake.

Anyhoo.  Enough hypothesizing about an entire league on the basis of a sample size of one.

The ballpark was fairly antiseptic…a seating bowl stretching most of the way from bullpen to bullpen.  There was no real sense of place here…were it not for the palm trees past the outfield wall, I would not have known where I was.  I enjoyed the advertising for a plumbing company on the foul poles…it gave the park a small-town and minor-league feel that the Reds were so obviously trying to avoid.  And there was one plaque of Ed Smith himself, a man “dedicated to service of the youth of Sarasota.”  Beyond that:  not much exciting or locally recognizable about Ed Smith Stadium.

I happened to be in Sarasota the same week that David, a fellow teacher at my Seattle-area school, was in Sarasota. So we hooked up 3200 miles from home for a ballgame with some Floridian buddies of his. A pleasant guys’ night out was sarasotafanhad by all.  We encountered this man a few seats away.  He heckled ballplayers and umpires throughout the game.  Normally this bugs me, but there was something about him that was kind of good-natured.  It was interesting to hear him gradually damage his vocal cords as the game wore on.  More head voice, fan–support with the diaphragm, not at the throat.  sarasotacody

The best play of the game turned out to be turned in by this kid on the right, Cody.  He got, by my count, over half of the foul balls that made it into the seats.  My favorite came early in the game.  A batter hit a foul ball down the right field line, beyond the stands.  A kid wearing red, a few years older and a few pounds heavier than Cody, was seated just past first base.  He was the only person interested in the foul ball, so he started running towards the ball…then walking when he thought he had it in the bag.  But my boy Cody had a bead on it.  He started on the third base side of home plate, and just sprinted towards the ball.  The funniest part was when the kid in red first spotted him.  He realized he was in trouble and started running.  Cody, in spite of surrendering about an 80-yard head start, beat him to the ball.  It was incredible.  And for Cody, it wasn’t about gathering or hoarding the balls, it was about the chase.  Like a fisherman letting his catch go, he always gave up the foul balls he gathered.  He gave the kid in red that ball, and he gave me one.  Strange…I still haven’t had a chance to give a foul ball to a kid, but a kid has given one to me.  Hmmm.

I also saw a bizarre pregame near-incident.  I don’t have to tell you what almost happened.  All you have to do is look at the picture.  That’s Will Hudson talking on the phone.  As this photograph is being snapped, Miguel Perez, the catcher, #37, is in the process of repeating:  “Look out!  Heads up!  Watch out!”  Hudson, apparently engrossed in conversation, is not hearing it.

sarasotapregamemishap

The ball missed Hudson by an uncomfortably small distance.  So remember, kids:  Friends don’t let friends talk on cell phones on the field during long-toss.

So, to sum up:  Great baseball.  I’m just not sure anyone in Sarasota–including Reds’ staffers–is doing anything to convince people that a night of high-A ball can be a worthwhile night out–even more fun, in its own way, than spring training.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel:  3.5/10
There was loads of regional feel…but the region the Ohio River Valley.
All I could find that said Sarasota to me was a plaque of Mr. Ed Smith and a few palm trees.  Why not a little bit more to make me feel like I’m in Florida?

Charm:  2.5/5
Not a whole lot here.  Fairly standard stadium.

Spectacle: 2/5
Next to none.  If anything, I got a vibe of disinterest.

Team mascot/name:  1.5/5
No mascot.  Under some circumstances, I’m okay with a name like “Reds” (as in the Appalachian League).  Here, it just adds to the sense that the parent club is more important than these flesh-and-blood players in front of us.

Aesthetics:  2.5/5
Palm trees are pretty.  The stadium is dull.

Pavilion area:  2.5/5
There was a little bit of a pavilion area–a couple of little deals pertaining to Reds history–but nothing terribly interesting or exciting.  Lineups were posted with both uniform number and position–convenient.  But it was, on the whole, an antiseptic, dreary place.  Check out this picture of the pavilion just before the game begins.  There’s nobody there and nothing to see.
sarasotaconcourse

Scoreability:  1.5/5
A few skipped decisions.

Fans:  1.5/5
Cody the foul ball kid was cool.  The nearby heckler was nice to me, although annoying.  But any park with an attendance of 237 won’t get a high score here.

Intangibles:  2/5
Great game and good company, but I get the sense that Sarasota–including those who run the club–do not believe a high-A baseball game is worth much time or effort.

TOTAL:  19.5/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

Sarasota’s fifth game as a Reds’ affiliate turned into the first win in their history as the Sarasota Reds.

Calvin Medlock, Kyle Edens, and David Shafer combined on a six-hitter.

Junior Ruiz went 4-for-4.  Chris Dickerson homered.

(Written April 2005.  Updated July 2009.)

Nat Bailey Stadium, Vancouver, British Columbia

no images were found

Nat Bailey Stadium, Vancouver, British Columbia

Number of states:  still 8 (but one province!)
States to go:  42
Number of games: 1
First game: August 29, 2004 (Everett AquaSox 5, Vancouver Canadians 3)

I had purchased the engagement ring about ten days earlier.  It had been sitting in my sock drawer.  Michelle The Girlfriend and I had been together for about two and a half years, and I was getting tired of her being merely at Girlfriend status.  Indeed, I had considered popping the question to her on our trip earlier that summer to the Oregon Coast–the Second Annual Paul and Michelle Minor League Trip, which included Tacoma, Eugene, and Portland.  But I wasn’t quite ready then.  Indeed, while sitting across the table from her at Mo’s Restaurant in Newport, Oregon, I confessed that I had thought about popping the question to her, but wasn’t quite ready.  Did she cry?  Get bitchy?  Nope.  She just gave a half smile and said something like “Whatever.”  She understood my need to, as she put it, “look at it from 20 different angles and upside-down before making a decision.”  If anything, that assured I’d get that ring–she was breathtakingly patient with me and very understanding of–and even fond of–my quirks. So it didn’t take long.  And on August 29, 2004, the day before school began, the day when we went to Nat Bailey Stadium–this would be the day I asked.

At some point early in our relationship, long before marriage had crossed our minds in any serious way, Michelle had warned me:  if I dared propose at a sporting event, she would walk out of said sporting event and I’d never see her again.  That works for me. 

I’m fairly into my private intimate moments being both private and intimate, and not public like the guy I saw propose to his girlfriend at Dwyer Stadium in Batavia, NY. So I knew the rules.  But when I think of Michelle and our best moments, they usually involve random road trips, baseball, and hanging out.  In fact, in honor of this, I gave Michelle a birthday card that year that said something like:  “We need to go bowling in Canada…[open card]…That way we can always talk about how fun it was that time we went bowling in Canada.”  Michelle repeatedly mentioned that card in the months following her birthday and the need to bowl in Canada.  So that set up our weekend road trip:  wake up early, put the ring in my jeans pocket while Michelle wasn’t looking, find a bowling alley south of Vancouver that would be open at 10AM on a Sunday (Michelle, trip-planner extraordinaire did that), and then zip up to Nat Bailey Stadium to catch a critical matchup between Everett and Vancouver, who were battling for the Western Division title.  After that…well…I had plans.

Michelle beat me at bowling.  That says more about my bowling abilities than about hers.  (Sorry, babe.)

How good a ballpark was Nat Bailey Stadium?  Good enough to make me forget

the stresses of the day.  I even stopped feeling in my pocket for the ring.  At first, before arriving, I thought the ballpark’s location was a bit unfortunate…it’s within Vancouver’s city limits, but very much a suburban spot.  However, I was won over when I got there.  The stadium is wedged between Queen Elizabeth Park, which provides for lovely views past the outfield wall of dog-walkers headed through the trees, and Hillcrest Park, which featured a nice, large, friendly pickup soccer match for the locals and a spiral slide for Michelle.  A lovely place to be.

Nat Bailey Stadium has as nice an atmosphere and as respectful an attitude towards its past as any ballpark I’ve ever been to.  This is best exemplified in its pavilion area.  I’m usually not thrilled with a cementy area under the bleachers, completely devoid of any natural light.  But at Nat Bailey Stadium, the pictures, exhibits, and history on display made the pavilion into a place I could have spent hours.  I had just finished reading Ball Four when I made it to Vancouver, so I wanted to see the 1969 Vancouver Mounties photo.  Sure enough, there it was, featuring many of the people Jim Bouton described in his book.  There were a number of newspaper accounts of key games from Nat Bailey stadium in the past, most notably a piece about an appearance Babe Ruth made there.  (Or was it Mickey Mantle?  I had a lot on my mind that day and could be remembering it wrong.  I do think it was Ruth, though.)  I’m enough of a nerd that I most enjoyed an article featuring Hilly Hathaway, whom I saw get one of his four major league wins.  I just loved meandering around that place, reading the articles covering baseball over the past many years.  It reminded me of Wichita and Spokane, two other places whose pavilion areas were de facto museums of local baseball history.  All minor league parks should have something like it.

Michelle and I parked ourselves in the front row, just short of Vancouver’s dugout.  It turned out we

were seated only a few feet away from Vancouver’s coaches.  This meant I got to hear umpire/coach conversation, and, as a sports official, I thoroughly enjoy this.  Today was better than most.

Vancouver’s pitching coach, I was pleased to see, was Craig Lefferts, whom I remember totally owning my ’84 Tigers in the World Series.  He looks like he’s still in awfully good shape, and as good a pitcher as he was and as long as he stuck around, I think that the pitchers in the Oakland system are fortunate to have him.  He seemed to be a good-natured guy, holding conversations with the fans behind the dugout in an easygoing manner that led me to believe that he had talked to these folks every game.  I even got to hear him politely–but firmly–yell at the home plate umpire about a pitch he felt caught the corner.  The conversation

went something like this:

CRAIG LEFFERTS:  Where was that, blue?!!
HOME PLATE UMPIRE (removing his mask):  I don’t want to hear it!
CL:  My catcher didn’t even move his glove!
HPU:  I’m right here, and you’re way over there!  You can’t see it!
CL:  I know my catcher wouldn’t set up off the plate!

As I see it, the umpire here was being a little bit of a hothead…Lefferts’ questions/complaints aren’t exactly rude, and hardly merited the removal of a mask and the subsequent hollering.  Lefferts hadn’t said anything all day prior to that.  But then, it had been a long season…maybe there had been previous encounters I don’t know about.

A little more interesting to me was the batting coach, Todd Steverson.  In looking at his career, he seems to mirror Billy Beane–the first-round pick with loads of promise who never quite makes it.  Perhaps that explains Todd’s behavior on this day–maybe he has a bit of a chip

on his shoulder, because in the fourth inning, he got tossed.  The play was a double-play call against the Canadians.  Steverson felt that the pitcher, who was finishing off a 3-6-1 double play, was pulled off the bag by the throw.  From my angle, he was thrown off the bag, but landed on it again before the batter, Landon Powell, got there.  Good call, Blue.  But Steverson had a fascinating way of arguing.  Did he say:  “No!  He was pulled off the bag!”  Nope.  Did he say:  “Oh, you blew that one!”  Nope.  Steverson immediately started shouting–and repeating three times!–the following complaint:  “You suck, Blue!  You suck!  You suck!”  What the hell is that?  That’s terribly juvenile behavior…Steverson is living down to the stereotype of ballplayers with that kind of garbage.  And what’s more, it’s not even clever!  It’s fourth-grade level.  If you’re going to bitch and moan, at least be creative about it.  Or, to put it in a way that Mr. Steverson might more easily understand:  You suck, Steverson.  A very rare combination of immature, whiny, and lame!  Anyway, back to the game.  The second base umpire rightly tossed Steverson, who then ran out onto the field to get his last complaints in before leaving.  The only problem with the base umpire, as I see it, is that he was smiling when he ejected Steverson.  To me, that betrays a little weakness…he’d have done better to have stayed poker-faced.

I cannot locate the names of either umpire for that game, but here’s my prediction:  out of these four main characters (Lefferts, Steverson, and the two umpires), only Lefferts will make it to the majors as a coach or umpire.

More about the ballpark:  It is unabashedly minor league in so many ways…encountering ballplayers making phone calls in the pavilion (probably expensive to make an international cell phone call), loads of promotions, a between-innings archery exhibition…it was nicely put together.  A good day of entertainment.  I insist that Canadians are more polite than Americans, and that this leads to a sweet atmosphere at the ballpark–and it means that even a large city like Vancouver can have a

small-towny feel to it.  I even felt like the font of the concession stand lettering had a retro feel to it, making me feel like I was in a ballpark in the early ’50s.  Does that make any sense?  I especially enjoyed the foresty views of Queen Elizabeth Park.  They seem to have everything I like in a ballpark.  On my visit, there were flyers being past around that said something like “Save Nat Bailey Stadium.”  I hope they succeed.  This is an old place, but clearly a loved and lovable place, and one of the better minor league ballparks I’ve ever seen.  I’d like to see it stay.

Michelle and I head home.  This is the Sunday night before school starts and I have to abandon Michelle for nine more months while I tackle student essays.  I tell her I’d like to go out to eat.  I try to very calmly say “where would you like to go?”  She says I get to decide.  I tell her I’d like to go to the Five Spot restaurant, which is where we had our first date.  I stop at a rest area and sneak off to make a phone call without her knowing.  I ask the guy at the restaurant to set aside the table where we met on our first date.  He does.  I think I’m being all suave, but Michelle insists she knew what I was up to.  She thinks I suggest the Five Spot a bit too eagerly.  She even thinks (she later tells me) she sees me checking my pocket for something…I know it wasn’t the ring, it was a cell phone, but Michelle thinks it’s the ring.  I spend the three hour drive home thinking about the best times I’ve had with this woman–many of them at ballparks, many of them documented here.  It seems appropriate that I should ask Michelle to marry me after a ballgame.  I’m happy and excited–not really scared-nervous, but psyched-nervous.  We get to the restaurant.  The table is ours.  I order my dinner.  I ask for an entire pitcher of water (Michelle later says this was a CERTAIN giveaway of my plans.)  I tell her that this is where it all started between us, and that this is where I’d like to start something else.  I produce the ring and set it on the table.

At that moment, an unfortunate waitress happens to set Michelle’s Diet Coke next to her.  I say “Will you marry me?”  The waitress literally runs away.

Michelle The Girlfriend became Michelle The Fiancée at that moment.

Man, but I love baseball.  And I love this exceedingly cool woman who accompanies me to games even more.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel:  8.5/10
For one thing, the ballpark is in the middle of The Queen’s Park–so I know I’m in Canada.  The suburban location isn’t perfect, but once inside, there’s not a question I’m in Canada…just enough maple leaves and Canadian promotions to push this score high.

Charm:  5/5
Very much so.  There’s something sort of your-father’s-baseball-park charming about the whole place.

Spectacle: 3.5/5
A bit calm, which I usually like, but my short-season-A ball can be a little more frenetic between innings.

Team mascot/name: 2.5/5
The name is fine, if a little generic.  No mascot.

Aesthetics:  4.5/5
Absolutely lovely throughout.

Pavilion area: 5/5
Absolutely fantastic.  Ex-Canadians’ pictures on the wall, old newspaper clippings, and old team photos intermingle with old-timey concession stands…I could have spent the whole down in the tunnel.  You know I like a pavilion if it’s not open-air and I give it a perfect score.

Scoreability:  4/5
No problems here.

Fans:  3.5/5
They seemed to be nice people, and close friends with Craig Lefferts, who talked to them throughout the game.  Not too many of them, though.

Intangibles:  5/5
A beautiful ballpark with a sense of charm and history.  Plus, I’ll always associate it with getting engaged later that night.

TOTAL:  41.5/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

Everett’s Brandon Green had the key hit, a two-run game-untying single in the eighth inning off pitcher Adiel Sanchez’s leg and into right field.

The Canadians couldn’t solve Aaron Trolia’s pitching…he shut down Vancouver for 6 1/3.

Mark Lowe came on to get the save.

Dwyer Stadium, Batavia, New York

Dwyer Stadium, Batavia, NEW YORK

Number of states: 8
States to go: 42
Number of games: 1
First game:  July 26, 2004 (Batavia Muckdogs 6, Mahoning Valley Scrappers 2)

(Click on any image to see a larger version.)

As I crossed back into the United States from Canada (and Skydome) to make New York the 8th state crossed off in the Minor League quest, the US was on a major terror watch due to the Democratic National Convention beginning in Boston.  I figured it would be a tough time getting across the border.  Here’s what transpired:

CUSTOMS GUY:  Where are you coming from?
ME:  Toronto.
CUSTOMS GUY:  What were you doing there?
ME:  Watching two baseball games.
CUSTOMS GUY:  Where are you heading?
ME:  Batavia.  One more game, tomorrow night.
CUSTOMS GUY:  Where are you from?
ME:  Seattle.
CUSTOMS GUY:  How do you afford this?  Tickets, hotels, rental car?
ME:  Well, it adds up, but I save up.

Isn’t it nice to know that, even at a moment when our country is in unique danger, that this customs guy cares enough about me to ask about my finances?  I mean, not that I expect politeness or sensitivity from my government workers–I know better–but come on, isn’t this a little irrelevant and intrusive?  Oh well–at least I wasn’t frisked.

Maybe the man’s status as a government worker isn’t to blame for this

exchange.  Maybe it’s something as simple as his status as a resident of an Eastern state, where politeness isn’t valued that much.  This gentleman served as a nice introduction to the brusque East from the polite Midwest and polite Canada.  I’m glad I met him…it was essential preparation for the treatment my new friends would give me in Batavia the next night.

I had literally zero expectations for Batavia, a town of 80,000-ish about 40 minutes east of Buffalo.  I’d never heard of it and hadn’t been anywhere near it before.  What a pleasant surprise!  It was a disarmingly charming small town–loads of parks and historic markers.  Rather than dining at a chain fast food place, I had a sandwich made at a family-run deli

just a couple of blocks south of the ballpark.  This kind of place doesn’t exist in a good chunk of the country–at least not in cities large enough to support minor-league baseball.  If it weren’t cold and drizzly, I would have spent the entire day wandering around one of Batavia’s several large, tree-packed parks.  As it is, I went down the road to LeRoy to enjoy the Jello Museum.  Yes, I was excited to go–that kind of kitschy pop culture integrated with American history is right up my alley.  I’ll lay off talking about it here and encourage you to check out the website if you’re at all interested.

The ballpark itself is smaller than most I’ve been to, even at the short-A level.  There are three small segments which spread from just-beyond-first to just-beyond-third with significant gaps between the segments.  This means that a spectator can walk from the pavilion straight out to the dugouts.  There’s little in the way of decoration on the pavilion, but I like what there is:  clearly, local schoolkids have made art as a part of a local anti-smoking campaign.  Also, they have a very basic “Wall of Fame” listing every major league player or manager in history that had passed through Batavia on his way to the bigs.  I’ve seen walls of fame before, but

only for superstars; this is the first I’ve seen that claims to be all-inclusive, honoring every major leaguer from Hall of Famers down to cups of coffee.  (Even if they incorrectly changed “Dock Ellis” to “Doc Ellis.”) Additionally, the ballpark has a little table underneath the whiteboard with the starting lineups; this makes it far easier to write lineups in my scorebook than it has been for me anywhere else.  These little things add up.

I must admit that, as much as I liked these touches, the fans are what made Batavia such a nice experience for me.  A month or two before I went to Batavia, Sports Illustrated ran a nice piece on how big minor league baseball is in New York.  The fine folks around me backed this up.  First, I met an elderly couple who were clearly major Muckdogs supporters.  Not only were they able to tell us a good deal about current Muckdogs, but had some sense of their fluctuating roster–who was on their way up to full-season A and who would be promoted to Batavia from the Gulf Coast League.  Very impressive.  The grandmotherly woman was kind enough to give me a NY/Penn League baseball.  Thanks, kind stranger!  The gentleman next to me was on a minor league trip through the Northeast.  He’d made it from his home in Scranton up to Rochester, then to Batavia, eventually to get as far as Akron.  Nice guy, although it appeared his wife would rather be elsewhere.  The gentlemen

behind me were from Connecticut, and one of them was in his 35th year of teaching high school civics, which gave us a lot to talk about.  He, too, was traveling through a number of minor league ballparks in the Northeast.  It was almost enough to get me to forget he was a Yankee fan…but not quite.

All of these folks were nice–and all of them turned on me mercilessly.  Make no mistake…I deserved it.  It happened in the fifth inning.  Carl Galloway was at bat.  I’m sitting in the front row just short of first base.  Mr. Galloway checks his swing and sends a chopper off the tip of his bat down towards me.  The ball takes a wicked ricochet off the base of the wall about six feet short of me, and I throw out my glove to attempt a backhand stab at it.  Before I tell you the result of my attempt, please consider these two facts:

1.  I had less than a second to react after the ball ricocheted off the wall.

2.  As a result of going off the end of the bat and then the base of the wall, the ball had some nasty English on it.

Okay.  The ball hit my glove, and I dropped it.  It didn’t get back into the webbing.  I could feel it hit the meat of my hand beneath my pinkie and spin right out past the flesh beneath my thumb.  It was gone as soon as it was there.

Here’s where things went haywire.  The Batavia crowd booed me relentlessly.  Even my alleged friends

around me really let me have it.  “Why didn’t you put down your scorebook?”  shouted one.  “Put an E10 in that scorebook!  E10!  E10!” shouted the Connecticut teacher.  While I slammed my glove into the railing, hid my face in shame, and slunk to my seat, the first base coach retrieved the ball and handed it to the guy NEXT TO ME!  Whatever…I already had a ball from the nice old lady.

But my so-called friends wouldn’t let me forget it!  I know it was all in fun–Connecticut guy said as much by repeatedly saying “Welcome to the Eastern United States!” in the midst of his heckling.  I have no idea how to respond to this kind of treatment.  It feels like the second-grade boy and girl smacking and pinching each other to show they like each other.  In the Eastern United States, apparently, when you like somebody, you verbally abuse them.  I’ll stay in Seattle, thanks.  But still, I can respect the cultural difference and even play along a little.  And I could have prevented the whole problem by catching the damn ball to begin with.

From the small world department…As I looked at the program before the game, one of the Mahoning Valley Scrappers’ hometowns was the small suburb in which I teach.  He was warming up just a few feet in front of me.  I called him over and asked if he went to my high school.  He had!  My first year there was his senior year, and I didn’t teach him, so we didn’t know each other, but I asked if I could say hi to anybody when I got back home.  He played on a tremendous high school team that wound up having four players drafted off of it…and this kid wasn’t one of them!  Funny thing was that their team didn’t do very well–didn’t make the state playoffs, perhaps because the kids were more focused on the fact that there were scouts in the stands than they were on playing the game.  Nice kid.  Tim Montgomery is his name.  He went 0-for-4, unfortunately, but brought a .270 average into the game.  I’ll keep an eye out.


“Take Me Out to the Ballgame” was not sung in the seventh inning stretch at Batavia.  It was pre-empted by a

no images were found

marriage proposal.  The PA guy turned the microphone over to a man, pictured at left, who proposed to his girlfriend right there.  “Say no!  Say no!” the New York guys shouted, particularly the fat guy in the Bills cap who was most ruthless in making fun of me…clearly because fat guy is leading a lonely life, and would never have been able to make the catch that he ridiculed me for missing…yeah, I’m making fun of the guy now that I’m out of the state and he can’t hurt me…so what?  Anyway, the marriage proposal was a success: the woman pictured here agreed to marry the man, in the words of his proposal, “a year from now, right here at the ballpark.”

A couple of thoughts about marriage proposals (and, indeed, marriages) at the ballpark.  Michelle the Girlfriend and I love baseball, and indeed, baseball has been central to our relationship in many ways.  She came up with the idea for the yearly July 4th Minor League Baseball trip, she keeps up on my website, she understands and tolerates this quest of mine, and she’s even competitive in my fantasy league.  Indeed, we probably wouldn’t be together were it not for baseball…we reconciled four years after a breakup in part because Michelle got a job for a minor league team and found she missed me.  But when the time comes for a marriage proposal, if I do it at the ballpark, Michelle has assured me she will never speak to me again.  I share her distaste for the ballpark proposal.  First of all, there’s the public aspect of it.  It seems to me that asking and answering this question should be done privately.  It’s a terribly intimate moment…why make it into a de facto reality TV show?  That feels cheap and yucky to me.  Also, how much pressure is there on the woman?  Just once, I’d like to see a woman actually say no to a public proposal.  It’d serve the guy right for pressuring her.  Michelle and I have agreed that, when the day comes, we’ll have our rehearsal dinner at a minor league game, but that’s wildly different from the actual marriage–it’s a party, not a ceremony.  I don’t want to have a thousand strangers looking on, four dozen kids chewing tobacco, or people publicly adjusting themselves as I become engaged or married.  I certainly don’t want a mascot spraying silly string.  I don’t want the recessional music to be “YMCA.”  I don’t want a scoreboard to send us off on our honeymoon.  I don’t understand why anyone else would.  Nevertheless, I wish the happy couple luck, and hope they enjoy their wedding.

Dwyer Stadium was a very good experience for me–it has a homey, intimate feel, and I enjoyed my trip there.  I’ll be back.  I’ll spend some time preparing some insults for Fat Bills Hat Man and anyone else who comes after me, and I’ll field grounders for a month before the trip.  I’ll show you guys.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel:  8/10
It felt like a small town–and a small Northeastern town at that.

Charm:  4.5/5
Right down to the kids’ drawings.

Spectacle: 3.5/5
Could have had a little more going on for short-season A ball, but not bad.

Team mascot/name:  4.5/5


Meet Maxwell T. Chomper. (Check out the kids mugging for the camera behind us.)  I know that “Muckdogs” is a new name (fans told me that the Columbus minor league team sued to have Batavia drop its former “Clippers” nickname), and that it’s a bit nontraditional, but I absolutely love it.  It’s locally appropriate, unique, intimidating, and fun all in one.  Max could be dressed a little better, I think, but that’s a minor complaint.

Aesthetics:  3.5/5
Lots of trees, and has a small town beauty/charm about it.

Pavilion area:  4.5/5
I love the major league wall and the writing surface by the lineups.

Scoreability:  5/5
No problems at all–they quickly displayed all close scoring decisions.  One of the best ballparks I’ve been to for this.

Fans:  4/5
Okay–so the fans were verbally abusive to umpires, opponents, and worst of all, to me.  Nevertheless, they mean well–I’m willing to see beyond their social shortcomings and obvious anger issues to see how genuinely kind, gregarious, and knowledgeable they were.

Intangibles:  4.5/5
I really felt like this was a fun, enjoyable night of baseball–a great way to end my 2004 trip.

TOTAL:  42/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

Kind of a quiet game.

The big blow was Carl Galloway’s three-run home run for Batavia.

Marshall Szabo went 4-for-4 for Mahoning Valley.

Scrappers’ pitcher Tony Sipp looked like a possible star to me, striking out 7 over 2 2/3 innings, but his defense and wildness let him down.  Still, I felt he looked strong–worth keeping an eye out for him.

Andy Baldwin allowed only six hits and one run over six innings for Batavia.

(Written August 2004.  Score revised July 2009.)

C.O. Brown Stadium, Battle Creek, Michigan

C.O. Brown Stadium, Battle Creek, MICHIGAN

Number of states: 7
States to go:  43
Number of games:  1
First and last game:  July 20, 2004 (Battle Creek Yankees 3, West Michigan Whitecaps 2, 10 innings)

C.O. Brown Stadium is no longer in use for the affiliated minors as of the 2007 season.

(Click on any image to see a larger version.)

Singing buddy Kristin and I found our way to Cereal City after experiencing the annoying shortcomings of South Bend and the always fantastic Wrigley Field.  Since I had no experience with Battle Creek other than driving through it on I-94 a few times (sometimes it smells like Corn Flakes, other times like Froot Loops), I had no real expectations for the evening.  What I got was quite a memorable ballgame, an extremely quirky ballpark, and a sense that I was a part of the dugout for the West Michigan Whitecaps.

The park’s location is fairly typical for single-A:  it’s a part of a recreational complex, just the largest of about a half dozen fields on the site.  The cool part about this is that, at least on the night I went, there were other

games to be seen on site.  If Kristin and I had arrived earlier, we could have sat in on either of two other baseball games taking place (it may have been American Legion or AAU ball).  It was here that I secured my only foul ball of the whole trip, but alas, it was not at the Yankees/Whitecaps game…it was one launched into the parking lot from one of the other games.  I retrieved it and dutifully tossed it back.

I can’t for the life of me figure out how C.O. Brown Stadium came to be shaped exactly as it is.  The largest block of seating is behind home plate, but there’s an almost-as-big block which hooks around the left-field foul pole.  My best guess (indeed, my only guess) is that the older-looking seating area by the foul pole was, at one time, the only block of seats in the ballpark, and that home plate used to be over there.  My theory then has the larger block built later on, and home plate moving but all the seating remaining.  A friendly usher was unable to help me solve this conundrum, and I still can’t figure out why the ballpark looks that way.  Quirky?  Yes.  Charming?  That’s in the eye of the beholder.

Another quirky feature of the ballpark adds loads to its charm, however.  Just past each dugout is a box of seats that juts out four or five rows

beyond the dugout and towards the field.  Kristin and I had seats on the inside edge of that section, second row.  That means that, by looking over our right shoulders, we were able to look directly into the visitors’ dugout.  Any sense of privacy those players hoped to have was shot!  I looked as players lifted barbells, chatted, high-fived, and watched the game.  It made it very easy to root for West Michigan on that day.

Besides, just out of principle, I can’t root for any team nicknamed the “Yankees.”  I’m annoyed that the team has this name.  Battle Creek’s name was just changed in 2003, from the locally appropriate (and interesting) “Battle Cats.”  Does George Steinbrenner think that everyone really wants to be like him?  Worse yet, after the Yankee victory, the loudspeakers played “New York, New York.”  Gimme a break!  We’re not in New York, even if it’s what the players are striving for.  You know the line “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere?”  Well, the players have to make it in Battle Creek first.  Lay off that song, or at least relegate it to pregame somewhere.

As I meandered through the ballpark before the game, I saw a scoresheet on a table behind home plate on 

the main walkway.  Would the Yankees really put their official scorer out there with the people?  I was astonished.  Later, I found out that this was not at all true–but instead was part of what I think is a fantastic promotion that balances my desire for promotions at the low-minor level without the concern that those promotions will interfere with the baseball.  Spectators were given Bingo cards upon entry to the stadium with various possible outcomes on them, such as “Matt Carson walks” or “Nick Walsh doubles.”  This means that fans must keep track of the game to fill out their bingo cards.  The scorebook behind home plate was not the official scorekeeper, but was the Yankees’ worker keeping score–the guy the winner takes the bingo card to as soon as he/she has a bingo.  I had never seen this before, and was quite impressed with the idea.

At the end of pregame warmups, Whitecap Juan Francia got on my good side by

delivering a baseball to a youngster next to me.  What a stud–I hope he rises through the organization.  He went 1-for-4 with a walk and a stolen base, as well as some flashy defensive play.  But I’ll always remember him first for being a nice guy.

It was church night in Battle Creek, so I had to be on my best behavior.  According to the Yankees, 361 of the 1,574 in attendance were a part of ten or twenty church groups that were in attendance.  A chorister from one of the churches sang the National Anthem and bungled it badly–he started in a key so breathtakingly high that I turned to fellow singer Kristin and whispered “I’ll hate to hear ‘the rockets’ red glare.'”  Sure enough, when he got there, he had to drop down an octave.  Later, he sort of made up a melody for “land of the free” to dodge that high note as well.  Singers–if you are to sing the National Anthem a cappella, I implore you to do the following:  for a couple of minutes before you begin, sing “Oh say can you see” and “And the rockets’ red glare” back to back repeatedly.  “Say” and “red glare” are the lowest and highest notes you’ll have to sing, unless you choose to go up the fourth on “land of the free” later on.  This will prepare you for the anthem and avoid the situation this man found himself in.  It always worked for me.

I don’t know if this was planned, but after the sixth inning, they gave the anthem singer another shot at the mike, this time to sing “How Great Thou Art.”  I guess this was to celebrate church night.  This led to a bizarre situation on the field and in both dugouts.  How does one respond

to the singing of a religious hymn during a game?  I admit, when the guy started singing, I stood and removed my cap…but as soon as I realized he was singing “How Great Thou Art” rather than “God Bless America” or another patriotic song, it occurred to me that it might not be appropriate to have my hat over my heart and standing at attention to the flag.  This is not the national anthem.  I passionately love my God and my country, but I passionately love them separately.  Mixing them by observing the flag while singing a religious hymn felt wrong to me.  However, I’d want to be respectful by standing in silence, just as I would stand in silence for a sacred song for any religion.  So I was at a bit of a loss for what to do, and figured it would be worse for the players.  Do the players look at the flag, stand reverently, or just go about their business?  A quick look over my shoulder, however, revealed that West Michigan manager Matt Walbeck (who, until and including the previous season, had been a major league player) had his hat over his heart, and had beckoned his team to join him on the top of the dugout steps, which they did:

Seconds later, however, I think Walbeck realized that this wasn’t “America the Beautiful,” because by the time the singer got to “My savior God to thee,” Walbeck had run out of the dugout to his third-base coaching position, where he prepared for the inning.  The Whitecaps’ players, at least a couple of whom must be Jewish or Muslim or agnostic or atheist, all of whom had until seconds earlier had been standing in reverent silence, had headed to the bat racks and benches, perhaps wondering what the heck had happened.  And Wilton Reynolds, the designated hitter, had clearly realized the bizarreness of the situation, because he actually was doubled over in laughter.  I made eye contact with him–I thought the whole thing was funny too.  (Looking at the picture above, it looks like Vince Blue, #31, also senses something is awry.)

On the whole, this was a nice way to spend a muggy Michigan night–surrounded by nice people enjoying a ballgame at an old park.  This also turned out to be one of the best minor league ballgames I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching.  I’ll tell you about that under “Baseball stuff” below.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel:  6.5/10
Reasonable, with big Midwestern trees beyond the outfield wall and massive Midwestern clouds, but nothing really to denote Michigan or Battle Creek.  I couldn’t even smell the Froot Loops until I was on my way out of town.

Charm:  4.5/5
Sure.  Quirkiness and fans so close to the action that kids talked to the bullpen catcher as he warmed up pitchers.

Spectacle: 5/5
Excellent here.  Understated and persistent–frequent between-innings action and the Bingo game tied right in with the baseball.

Team mascot/name:  2/5


The name change to Yankees was tragic, as the old “Battle Cats” paraphernalia on sale for half price was one of the saddest things I’ve seen. I hope Steinbrenner helped defray the costs.  The mascot himself is Doodle–apparently a youngster or a very short individual.  I like the name Doodle (get it?) a lot.

Aesthetics:  3/5
Sweet on the outside, but not too attractive on the inside (see below).

Pavilion area:  2.5/5
There was an area where kids were playing pickle, but it was far too small.  Mostly, it was just prison-like cement.



Scoreability: 3/5
Numbers and names readily available in the pavilion, but by the seventh inning, the names they had on the scoreboard didn’t at all match the actual people at bat.  It’s like the scoreboard people gave up.  Good for a while, though.

Fans:  3.5/5
The church people were very nice in the conservative Midwestern way (and I mean that affectionately–not at all sarcastically or disparagingly).  A few drunken louts nearby hurt the score.

Intangibles:  4.5/5
A great game where I felt like I was chatting with the players.  Fun night.

TOTAL:  34.5/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

What a game!  Mr. Walbeck has a little work to do in the managerial department, I’m afraid.  The game’s star was Whitecap starter Virgil Vasquez, who cruised through eight innings of four-hit shutout ball.  I was surprised to see him come back out for the ninth inning.  Don’t they have pitch counts at A-level ball?  Walbeck had a reliever, Eulogio de la Cruz, warmed up, and Vasquez had thrown quite a few pitches.  Still, he struck out Matt Carson to start the inning, and things looked good for West Michigan.  When third baseman Kody Kirkland kicked Erold Andrus’ liner, there was one on and one out, and I was thinking that one more baserunner and would bring out Walbeck with the hook.  Bryce Kartler singled.  Vasquez stayed on.  A popout brought it to two on and two outs…then a laboring Vasquez walked John Urick. SURELY, I thought, this has to be it for Vasquez…he’s had a fine game, now de la Cruz can nail it down, right?  Nope.  Walbeck stuck with Vasquez.  It turned out to be a bad move, as Tommy Rojas singled to tie the game with two unearned runs.  Only then, too late, did Walbeck relieve Vasquez.



De la Cruz got out of the inning, but Battle Creek won in the tenth on Andrus’ RBI single.  An angry Kody Kirkland, whose error made all of this possible, violently kicked a plastic cooler in the dugout on his way back to the clubhouse after the game.

Also, Garth McKinney homered for the Whitecaps.  Party on, Garth.  (I bet he’s never

heard that one before!  Man, it just occurs to me that Garth would have been around 10 at the height of Wayne’s World…what a bummer of a time to be 10 and named Garth.)

(Written August 2004.)