Category Archives: minor league

Ballparks of the affiliated Minor Leagues.

Ogren Park at Allegiance Field, Missoula, Montana

Ogren Park at Allegiance Field, Missoula, MONTANA

Number of states: 29
States to go:  21

First game:  July 2, 2009 (Missoula Osprey 14, Great Falls Voyagers 9)

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

Looks great–sounds awful.

For our seventh-annual 4th of July Minor League Baseball Road Trip (and our first with spawn), Michelle and I headed out to Montana for my first Pioneer League game.  We were quite impressed with Missoula as a city–a nice university town surrounded by

gorgeous mountains.

Ogren Park at Allegiance Field is located almost perfectly within that gorgeous town–just off of downtown and in the shadow of the Rockies.  You can’t do better than that for location.  There’s a view of a little bit of downtown, but not much; mostly, the ballpark feels sunken into the ground.  This hardly matters, however, since the mountains are so beautiful.  Watching the last of the sun reflect off of the mountains between pitches is as good as it gets.  If you ever go to the ballpark, please sit on the third-base side.  Not only is it the shady side, but you can’t go wrong with that view.

The ballpark is pimped out a little more than I’d like.  For starters, I think the name is backwards…shouldn’t the field be at the park rather than vice versa?   Local car dealer Kathy Ogren bought the naming rights to the park (although apparently not the field)…but then named it after herself rather than after her business, Bitterroot Motors.  I suppose that name choice is better than Bitterroot Motors Park would have been (although not nearly as graceful, beautiful, and locally appropriate as Bitterroot Park).  And once inside, there are a few too many corporate reminders for my tastes.  I worry a little about a

ballpark viewed as a promotions transferrence device.  But to sit underneath those mountains, I can live with some of that.  (Who looks at advertisements when there’s baseball and a fantastic foothill view?)  Although one cannot see the mountain marked with the letter “M” (for the University of Montana), one could see the mountain marked with what was a mysterious “L”.  An usher informed me that said “L” is for Loyola High School.

As I poked around before the game, I found a lot that I liked.  For starters, the place is appropriately quirky.  The right-field line is really short–only 297 feet to the pole, so the team compensates with a particularly high Monster-like wall there. Unlike some

ballparks of recent vintage, this isn’t a forced attempt at character.  There are railroad tracks and a bike/walking path there that compel them to cram right field into very little space.  The idea that a railroad, including a gorgeous railway bridge one can see from the pavilion area by the right field foul pole, would be so prominent in a Montana ballpark helps this place.  I was also impressed that the locals who were biking and walking the path could stop and watch the game from the distance in center field…for free.  Alas, they would be denied the “bats and balls” offering in the concession stand…which, the concession worker told me with just a bit of a blush, are french fries (“bats”) and, as she directly put it, “buffalo balls.”  Um…no thanks.  But I’m glad they’re available.  Adds to the local color.

Speaking of local color, the name “Osprey” is locally appropriate–in spades.  Most impressively, an actual Osprey lives in a nest perched atop a giant wooden pole just past the wall in right-center field.  A telescope sits on the third-base side of the pavilion, trained full-time on the nest. By the telescope stands a wildlife expert who can answer all of your actual small-o osprey questions.  It’s hard to take a picture through a telescope, but I tried…how often does one get a opportunity to take a picture of osprey young in their nest?  The baseball club doesn’t just name itself after these birds, but they make them into what I think is as gorgeous a logo as you’ll ever see on a minor league hat–the outline of a flying bird holding a fish in its talons.

While the place was pimped

out to the gills, it did give me a sense that baseball was valued.  I appreciated the large tributes to former Osprey who had made the major leagues, both with the parent Diamondbacks and with other clubs.  I’ve never seen quite such a large display, and that’s something I always enjoy, particularly at the lowest level of the minors like this.  And on top of that, they had a promotion that I was quite looking forward to because of its baseball-relatedness.  If something highly unusual were to take place in a specific inning (a triple play, for instance, or the team hitting for the cycle, or nine pitches for three strikeouts), a fan would win $10,000.  I figured that, while unlikely, would be fun, so I entered my name. (Alas, my name was not selected.  And I do mean “alas,” for reasons that will become clear later.)

Happy we had made the trip, I bought one of the team’s gorgeous hats and prepared to enjoy a game in gorgeous, unquestionably-Montana surroundings, alternating my night focusing

on my wife, son, baseball, and foothills.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, as it turned out, quite a bit.

The front office of the Missoula Osprey have a Rolls Royce of a ballpark.  It’s a shame that they believe that the purpose of a

Rolls Royce is to gun the engine, blast the bass, do some donuts and leave as much rubber as possible on the pavement.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the way the Osprey presented their game left me feeling as disappointed as I’ve ever felt in a ballpark.

It all started in about the 6th inning.  The peanut inning.

The PA announcer didn’t even announce it–or if he did, he announced it so quickly that I didn’t catch it.  (Not quietly, mind you.  Quickly.)

Next thing I know, the PA man was shouting at us.  The ushers were shouting at us.  And the citizens of Missoula, Montana were shouting alongside them like trained seals.

Here’s what it sounded like:

“I SAY PEA!  YOU SAY NUTS!  PEA!” Nuts! “PEA!”  Nuts! “NOW I SAY NUTS AND YOU SAY PEA!  NUTS!” Pea! “NUTS!” Pea! NOW I SAY PEA, YOU SAY NUTS!  PEA!” Nuts!

“NOW JUST THE WOMEN! PEA!” Nuts!

“NOW JUST THE MEN!  PEA!” Nuts!

“NOW JUST THE KIDS!  PEA!” Nuts!

“OK!  NOW THE FIRST-BASE SIDE SAYS PEA, AND THE THIRD-BASE SIDE SAYS NUTS!  GO! ” Pea!  Nuts!

This is the point where I might say “You get the idea…” except that you absolutely have no idea the depths of hellishness this crap sank to.  Between every single pitch of the entire inning, this clown of a PA announcer shouted “PEA-PEA-PEA!!!” or some variety thereof.  Meanwhile, the ushers stood at the front of the rows and raised up their signs like elderly cheerleaders.  I felt like they were demeaned, to be honest.  I do not believe it is their job to lead cheers. I believe it is their job to help spectators.  I also do not believe that the public address announcer’s job is to shout out garbage through the game, but rather to provide information to enhance our enjoyment of the game and to take care of advertisers. Apparently the Osprey disagree.

Plus, when the dude shouts “PEA!!!”  it sounds like he is ordering us to urinate.  (Although I would imagine peeing nuts would be far

more painful than any kidneystone.)  Which led me to wonder…as readily as everybody was going along with this guy, would they have gone along with such an order!  If he’d have shouted out–“HEY!  FIRST BASE SIDE!  EVERYBODY TAKE A CRAP!  DEFECATE, EVERYONE!  SHIT ONTO THE SEATS!”…and had the ushers demonstrate…well, I do believe everybody would have followed orders.

Thankfully, the Osprey did not score in the inning.  I’m worried I’d have heard the PA guy pull a Meg Ryan from When Harry Met Sally while the ushers imitated his every sound.

And then–well, then it got worse.  By which I mean more bizarre.

Remember that promotion where someone could win $10K if something strange happened in the inning?  The 7th inning promotion would award a woman named Martha $10,000 if the Osprey scored exactly 7 runs in the inning.

Well, that was the inning that the Great Falls Voyagers, leading by a score of 8-1, suddenly lost the ability to pitch a baseball.

After a leadoff strikeout, the following transpired:  walk, single, single, error, HPB, walk, walk, walk, double.

With each Great Falls Voyagers screw-up, the music became more frequent, to the point where it was nearly between every pitch.  Any time the music subsided, the PA guy repeatedly ordered the brainwashed crowd around, saying hey, everybody shout, everybody up on your feet, everybody go crazy.  Saying hey, the Osprey need you to help them out.  Saying let’s all put our hands together.

PA guy, I have an honest question for you.  Do you believe that the citizens of Missoula are comically stupid?  Or is it tragically stupid?

I do believe that, particularly in a university town, that people are smart enough to know that a late seven-run rally to tie the score is exciting.  Additionally, the people know that Martha has $10,000 on the line.  That’s also exciting and fun to watch.

So, given that only someone with absolutely no sense would be bored by the developments on the field, why do you feel the need to blast your voice all over the ballpark between nearly every damned pitch???  Especially in an inning that lasted about a million pitches?

In the midst of all of this, my son, who normally sleeps through baseball games–even dramatic, ninth-inning rallies–could stand it no longer.  I took him up to the pavilion (where it was slightly quieter, albeit still too loud).  I watched the brunt of this lamentable inning from there.

Before long, seven runs were in.  The Osprey had tied the score 8-8. Men were on second and third.  There was one out.

“Now remember,” the PA guy said.  “The Osprey have to score EXACTLY 7 runs for Martha to win her $10,000.”

And at that moment, a hilarious thing happened.  The Osprey let their priorities show.

The PA guy shut up.  The music stopped.  After a million sound clips in the inning, and with the lead runs on second and third, the Osprey suddenly stopped audible expressions of support for the home team.  Oh, there may have been the occasional rhythmic-clapping clip.  But the PA guy stopped talking, and the loudest of the music stopped.

To the team, the promotion mattered more than winning the game.

To confirm this, I sidled up to an usher and asked the obvious.  “So, at this point, are we rooting for Great Falls?”

He looked at me and said “Don’t tell anyone, but right now, yes, we are.”  I promised not to tell anyone.  (As this post shows, I lied.)

The Osprey’s next two batters were retired before the 8th run could score, so Martha won her $10,000.  I’m glad she did, but the whole experience would have been far more exciting if they’d simply announced it at the start of the inning and treated the rest of the inning like normal (by which I mean normal for ballparks that value baseball, rather than normal for the loudmouthed pots-and-pans-banging folks for the Osprey).

Even thereafter, the PA guy wouldn’t shut up.  When the Osprey took the lead, he started cracking jokes between pitches.  “Hey fans…are  you enjoying your night at Ogren Park at Allegiance Field now?”  Laughter from the peanut gallery.  One pitch later:  “and you thought I had two heads when I said they could pull it off!”  Meanwhile, of course, there’s a guy in the batter’s box, but that’s apparently of little or no interest to Osprey game management.

And that’s where my fun night at the ballpark went.  It was destroyed by the larynx of an egomaniac who believes that he is the most important person at the ballpark.  That last comment of his proves it:  it shows that he believes the PA announcer was central in all of the spectator’s minds.  Not the massive comeback, the beautiful setting, the woman who won the big money, or even the abysmal

Rookie League play.  He believed that we all were thinking about him.

And he was right.  We were thinking of him because he was forcing us to.

So, to sum up, my hopes for an evening of baseball in a fine, quirky, locally-flavored ballpark were ruined by a front office and a public address announcer who put baseball dead last on its list of priorities.  The hair on the back of my neck stood up.  I was so worked up and frazzled that I vowed to tear out the PA guy’s larynx if I ever encountered him.  But I’ve calmed down since then.  Now, instead, I will simply avoid Ogren Park at Allegiance Field until the Osprey are run by someone else–someone who values baseball.   To put it simply, they took what might be the most physically beautiful setting for a park I’ve ever seen and managed to make me not enjoy the night.

Please–everyone who runs a team–learn from this.  Less is more.  Baseball is enough.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel:  10/10
The ballpark is quite literally as good as it gets in this regard.  Local landmarks visible on the mountains, respect for past Missoula minor leaguers, and bull testicles for sale.  That’s fantastic.

Charm:  1.5/5
Physically?  Sure.  But beyond that, this ballpark has all the charm of a screaming chainsaw.

Spectacle:  0/5
Hey Osprey:  Shut.  The Hell.  Up.

Team Mascot/Name:  4/5

Ollie Osprey and me.  Unique, locally appropriate, and a logo that’s a gorgeous as any I’ve seen.

Aesthetics: 5/5
The ballpark itself is quite nice–not perfect–but oh, those surroundings.  I just can’t imagine anything much better.

Pavilion:  3.5/5
Nice respect for the past.  Lots of room to walk, and always within view of the game.

Scoreability:  1/5
Did a lot wrong here.  They completely ignored at least one pinch-hitter, and I had to get information after the game from the internet…which the team posted improperly for a while.

Fans:  2/5
I appreciate the number of them, but I think they are complicit in the Osprey’s sins–serving as accomplices.

Intangibles:  1/5
I’ll admit I want to go back–but only once someone else is running the show.

TOTAL: 28/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

These kids need a bit of work, especially Great Falls’ relief pitching.  Missoula, once down 8-1, scores 7 runs in the 7th and 6 more in the 8th to win an endless game.

Nobody had more than two hits, but Missoula was the beneficiary of a dozen walks.  Paul Goldschmidt and Kevin Broxton walked thrice each.

Ramon Castillo homered for the Osprey.  Nick Ciolli homered for the Voyagers.

(Written September 2009.)

Security Service Field, Colorado Springs, Colorado

Security Service Field, Colorado Springs, COLORADO

Number of states: 28
States to go: 22

Number of games: 1
First game:  August 11, 2008, first game of DH (Colorado Springs Sky Sox 6, Portland Beavers 5, 8 innings–scheduled for 7)

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

My first minor league ballgames were in Colorado, at Mile High Stadium, 

But, according to the rules, my quest to get to a minor league game in each of the 50 states didn’t officially begin until 2003, so this necessitated a trip to Colorado Springs in August of 2008.  I was taking my bride to my 20-year high school reunion in the Denver suburbs, and it was very easy to take the jaunt down I-25 to see our local team, the Portland Beavers (who my wife rooted for vociferously) take on the Sky Sox.

There, we found a great ballpark in a highly unfortunate location.

It’s not the ballpark’s fault that it faces east (as is the convention for ballparks everywhere) and

therefore does not afford a view of the Rockies.  Indeed, it’s not really the ballpark’s fault that it’s located quite a ways east of the city and of the mountains, and therefore doesn’t really have any natural Colorado feel to it at all (eastern Colorado is not what one thinks of when one thinks of Colorado).  But the view beyond the outfield fence of endless tract housing is depressing to say the least.  When I’m pinned between strip malls and condominiums, I don’t have any feel for where I am.  The rule for ballparks is the same as the rule for real estate, and Security Service Field strikes out on three pitches when it comes to location, location, location.

However, the ballpark itself was quite lovely if one didn’t look beyond the outfield fences.  It has many touches I enjoy.  Visiting ballplayers walk past the kids’ area to get onto

the field, thus allowing for autographs.  The kids on the grassy hill are sedate and watching the game, probably because the Sky Sox, while not immune to promotional shtick, put baseball first.  And the retired numbers from past Colorado Springs teams are an especially nice touch–they bring us back to a local level that tract housing can’t.  So does the US Olympic flag flying under the state flag.

Security Service Field is a pretty small ballpark for AAA, which I like.  Rarely does a fan get a chance to be so close to AAA talent–and a ballpark of this lesser scale (it felt like a class-A or AA ballpark) is a pleasant surprise in the high minors.

Sox the Fox, the Sky Sox’s mascot, was simply wonderful…as energetic as any mascot I’ve ever seen.  He started the day by doing a

backflip off of a golf cart and didn’t stop moving the entire afternoon.  He actually did a couple of things that made me laugh–rare for a mascot.  I say this even though he gave me some grief for wearing a Mariners hat.  I was in the front row behind the dugout (prime mascot territory) and he removed my hat and pretended to urinate in it.  A little blue humor never hurt anyone.  But it was his athleticism that most impressed me.  He’s as good as I’ve seen.

This particular day featured a doubleheader for the Sky Sox…my pregnant wife’s second doubleheader in four days.  (The first wasn’t a scheduled doubleheader…it

was created by a rainout the night before.)  Thunderstorms gradually rolled all around us, with ominous, distant thunder leading me to wonder whether we’d be able to get one game in, let alone two (which were both slated for 7 innings).  Sprinkles occasionally would hit near us in what was as close to a muggy day as anyone can get in Colorado’s dry climate.

At some point during the fifth inning, my bride turned to me and asked the following:

“You know what would be better than watching a baseball game under the clouds?”

I shrugged.

“Watching the Olympics in our hotel room.”

Pregnancy, altitude, and doubleheaders don’t mix.

But still, my bride was a fantastic trooper.  The game went into extra innings (meaning the 8th), and in the top of the 8th, the skies opened up.  The thunder wasn’t too close, and the umpires were eager to get at least one ballgame in, so the game continued in the downpour.  Everyone in the ballpark headed up to the sheltered area behind home plate…and almost nobody left, either because they didn’t want to miss the end of the game or because they didn’t want to run through the rain.  Colorado storms usually don’t last too long, and this one passed quickly, but still, most of the crowd headed home, including Michelle and I.

Still, I give the crowd and the Sky Sox credit for a good experience and a nice ballpark.  It’s just a shame that experience and ballpark couldn’t be next to mountains instead of next to suburban blight.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel: 4.5/10
The Sky Sox do well to get the score this high, actually.  I’d have no idea where in the U.S. I was based on what I can see from the ballpark, but Colorado-themed concession items and retired Sky Sox numbers prevent this score from going far lower.

Charm:  2.5/5
Again, when I walked into the place, I thought this score might be a zero, but the Sky Sox put on a very nice show.

Spectacle: 3.5/5
A bit too much for AAA ball, but oh, that mascot was something else.

Team mascot/name:  4.5/5

“Sky Sox” is a fine name for a Colorado team, and Sox the Fox also a fine name…and the guy in the outfit earned this score with all his running and jumping.

Aesthetics:  1.5/5
Ballpark is OK…the view really, really dull.

Pavilion area:  3.5/5

Scoreability:  4.5/5
The Sky Sox did a fine job.  I especially featured the large, prominently-displayed lineups on the concourse.

Fans:  4/5
I can’t blame them for going home after the first game…to be fair, we did too.  (But also to be fair, they weren’t pregnant.)

Intangibles:  2.5/5
Lots of good here, but I’m afraid what I’ll remember is the tract housing.

TOTAL:  31/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

An incredibly dramatic ending.  Cedric Bowers uncorks a wild pitch in the downpour in the top of the (extra) 8th inning, scoring the Beavers’ Peter Ciofrone.  But the Beavers’ Edwin Moreno couldn’t seal the deal, as Sky Sox catcher Adam Melhuse crunches a 2-out walk-off home run to give Colorado Springs the victory.

(Written August 2008.)

Dickey-Stephens Park, Little Rock, Arkansas

Dickey-Stephens Park, Little Rock, ARKANSAS

Number of states: 27
States to go: 23

Number of games: 2
First game:  April 4, 2008 (Midland RockHounds 3, Arkansas Travelers 2, 10 innings)
Most recent game: April 5, 2008 (Midland RockHounds 2, Arkansas Travelers 1)

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

It was the best of parks, it was the worst of parks.  Michelle and I were both tremendous fans of Dickey-Stephens Park

pretty quickly.  Its location on the river and views of downtown (quite lovely…trust me, sit on the third-base side!) and even of the state capitol building (if you stand on the walkway in left-center field, crane your neck just so, and look out past the right-field foul pole), make for a lovely aesthetic experience.  And the Travelers Baseball Museum on site is precisely my favorite kind of thing to see.  Celebrations of Arkansas-area players and–be still my heart!–umpires abound.  Did you know that Bill Valentine umpired the 1965 All-Star Game?  Did you know that two recent Travelers who have pitched no-hitters–Jose Jimenez and Bud Smith–each went on to pitch a no-hitter as a rookie?  And that Bud Smith did it in spite of an incredibly unfortunate anagram for his name?  I love locally-oriented baseball museums.  I wish they hadn’t charged me a buck to get in there, especially since it’s less a museum and more a walk-in closet filled with memorabilia, but I still really enjoyed it.  The ballpark did very nicely in exuding Arkansas to me, and since my wife and I were fans of Little Rock as a city (recommended:

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a burger and shake at the Purple Cow), we liked that feeling.

In addition to the museum, there were a couple of other nice touches to the place.  The ballpark hasn’t (yet) pimped out its name to the highest bidder; indeed, it’s named after two sets of brothers who were instrumental in Arkansas baseball’s past.  (The “Dickeys” are baseball playing brother Skeeter and Hall-of-Famer Bill.)  As one approaches the ballpark, lampposts are festooned with shots of the Dickeys and the Stephenses from back in the day.  That’s wonderful.  Isn’t is sad that it’s now considered quaint and retro to have a stadium named after an owner?  But keep it.  The name might be verbose, but I like it. Additionally, the ballpark features a nice perk for its high-paying customers and groups who have the barbeque porch down the right-field line.  As people

eat there before the ballgame, they are positioned in a spot that the players walk through between the clubhouse and the field.  As such, all of the players and coaches on both teams have to walk through the barbeque area both before and after the game.  I can see where it would be a pain for players to have to walk through fans twice a day (as they do at High Desert), especially at the double-A level where legitimate rising stars might fight through decent-sized crowds.  So while I don’t usually like segregation by economic status at ballparks, I’m okay with groups having to pay for a shot at an autograph.  And I especially like the way that the players stood for what seemed to be a very long time signing.  (In the nearby photo, that’s Midland’s Tommy Everidge and an unidentified Traveler.)

But once the game got started, I’m afraid Dickey-Stephens Park had too many flaws in the way it presented the game to be ignored.  I’m always a fan of getting loads of information in my programs, etc.  At Dickey-Stephens Park, I learned that it’s far better to have no information than to have inaccurate information.  The scoreboard, the PA announcer (who had an awesome voice, by the way), and the uniform numbers never seemed to agree on who was at the plate.  Of course, if there were a pinch-hitter or other change, the PA guy took his sweet time letting us know, if he did at all.  There were ballplayers on the field who were not in the program, which, while acceptable on opening night, is not at all OK on the second and third nights in the program inserts, since they are printed out that day.  Net result:

in our efforts to score the games, Michelle and I came up very, very wanting in terms of good information.  They tried to keep track of players’ stats on the scoreboard, but there were times I simply didn’t know what they were talking about.  Plus, they sure did look like they were dropping an F-bomb at me, perhaps because I was looking at the scoreboard for accurate information:   Now, seriously, did they really have to use such language towards us?

Promotions were at times distracting.  I’m not a huge fan of the guy walking around the stadium filming people going batty for the scoreboard video screen…and I’m especially not a fan of his when he stands in front of me for several pitches, blocking my view.  I’m not anti-promotion–hey, I had the lucky program and won an Outback Bloomin’ Onion!–but I am anti-distraction, so this dude needed to sit down.

In any event, this was a beautiful ballpark in a nice city, but there was enough negative–poor presentation, icky brown grass, and a cameraman blocking my view–that it won’t get a very high score.  Still, in spite of that, it’s well worth a visit.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel:  9/10
Fantastic.  The museum, coupled with the river and the downtown skyline, make for an unquestionably Arkansan experience.

Charm:  4/5
Pretty nice here.

Spectacle:  3/5
I like winning contests, but I don’t like sitting behind a standing camera guy for several pitches.

Team mascot/name:  1.5/5

Here I am with that something-or-other…a horse?  a moose?  a whatever?  His name is simply an abomination to all that is holy…Shelly.  Please note the Shell Oil logo under his left elbow.  That’s right:  the Travelers have pimped out the name of their mascot to big oil.  Ick.  This makes me want to buy a hybrid even more.

Aesthetics:  5/5
A gorgeous place.

Pavilion area:  4.5/5
Very nice.  360-degree walk leads to even better views of the river, etc.

Scoreability:  0/5
The scoreboard and PA actually led to more confusion than clarity.  If I can score a game easier without the ballpark’s “help” than with it, that’s a pretty severe repudiation of a ballpark’s ability to do what a ballpark ought to be doing.

Fans:  3/5

Intangibles:  2.5/5
What can I say?  There were parts I loved and parts I really, really didn’t love.

TOTAL:  32.5/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

Myron Leslie hits a game-winning solo shot in the 10th for Midland.

Huge pitching in the second game.  Andrew Bailey pitchers 6 innings of 2-hit ball for the win for Midland.

(Written April 2008.)

Hammons Field, Springfield, Missouri

Hammons Field, Springfield, MISSOURI

Number of states: 26
States to go: 24

Number of games:  1
First game:  April 3, 2008 (Frisco RoughRiders 6, Springfield Cardinals 5)

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

I’d never been to the Ozarks before when I arrived for the 2008 Spring Break Trip. 

Michelle and I spent the night in Branson–no shows, since we got in too late, but long enough to get the sense that we brought the average age of the town down by about a decade.  We tooled around mountains and caves for a few days before doing Opening Day 2008 at Hammons Field.  Results were decidedly mixed.

First of all, as you can probably tell, the place is physically quite lovely.  It’s faced in the wrong direction–downtown is behind home

plate–but there’s nice flat prairie beyond the outfield and a Budweiser sign, which means that Hammons Field does well on the regional feel test.  They rolled out the red carpet to start out the year, putting each player in a red pickup truck and driving them around the parking lot of a grand beginning.  The ballpark is new, and Springfield only recently regained affiliated ball, so it’s pretty clear that they’re proud of their ballclub.

But in the end, there were too many problems to be ignored.  Most jarringly, where were all the fans?  Forecasts were grim–I’m surprised that they got the game in, actually–but the rain did hold off, and it was Opening Night, for goodness sake.  Second, when it did rain (for about two minutes in the third inning), a good chunk of people took off, and many others put up umbrellas.  It’s rude to put up umbrellas (there are people behind you, dammit), and

you can wait through the first few raindrops, can’t you?  Michelle and I did what they all should have done–waited a second, then found a dry seat in the back row, where we stayed through the rest of the (dry) night.

Second, we were pretty well astonished by the prices for double-A ball.  (Indeed, these prices might explain why so few people had shown up.)  Tickets were nearly twice as expensive as comparable ones cost us the following night in Little Rock, and

when the woman told me that a 22-ounce bottle of Sprite would cost me four bucks (I declined), I got the sense that the Cardinals thought that “big-time” meant nothing more than “really, really expensive.”  Heck, if memory serves, at Safeco Field I can get an entire vat of soda for about five bucks.  Why bleed your ticketholders dry, particularly during a recession?

Third, the place just didn’t celebrate baseball enough.  In the obligatory place-where-kids-can-run-around-and-burn-off-steam section, there was a basketball hoop and a pop-a-shot.  Nothing baseball related!  To be fair, when I think of basketball, I do think of Springfield.  The bad news is, I think of Springfield, Massachusetts.  I’m not sure why Hammons Field doesn’t have any baseball-related fun for the kids, but they don’t and it felt weird.

Finally, there was the strangeness of Team Louie.  A group of four nubile young women wore windbreakers that said “Team Louie” on the back.  I figured they’d be Louie the Mascot’s handlers, running around

with him and helping kids get to see him.  That didn’t happen, and so I was baffled as to the women’s purpose other than to be hot and young.  A quick internet search reveals that “a brief choreographed dance” is part of the tryout for team Louie.  So, alas, the women were glorified cheerleaders.  I don’t want my baseball teams to have cheerleaders.  They take away from the baseball.

There are certainly a few positives to the place.  The Cardinals have obviously succeeded in capturing the fans of this part of the state from the Royals–at least judging by the immense majority of spectators wearing red on this night.  There is a good, long walk that one can take almost all the way around the stadium–way out beyond the scoreboard and onto a grassy hill invisible

from the field where I encountered a good number of junior-high kids goosing each other.  The Cardinals were conscientious about scoring decisions on the scoreboard.  And the gorgeous clouds in a gigantic sky might be the number one memory I carry with me from this ballpark, as well as watching the fireworks they set off (clearly to celebrate Michelle’s birthday).

So, on the whole, it was a night at the ballpark, and it’s almost impossible for that night to be a bad one.  But when all was said and done, this gorgeous place left me wanting a little more.  Springfield is a little bit out of the way, so I don’t see myself returning any time soon, but I do hope they make Hammons Field into a baseball experience more worthy of the physical beauty of the ballpark.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel:  7/10
Budweiser, prairie, and Cardinal red.  The ballpark does fine here, although I’d like to see more about southwestern Missouri and less about St. Louis.

Charm:  2/5
Too corporate and expensive to be truly charming.

Spectacle:  3/5
OK for double-A level–nothing interfered–but what’s up with Team Louie?

Team mascot/name:  3.5/5


Louie on top, and Fetch, Louie’s pet dog, on the bottom.  I’m fine with Louie, but Fetch is a pretty transparent promotion aimed at the pre-potty-trained crowd.

Aesthetics:  3.5/5
Not bad, but the view is a little dull.

Pavilion area:  4/5
Would have been a five were it not for the basketball.

Scoreability:  4.5/5
I appreciate how carefully they put up decisions.

Fans:  2.5/5
Not enough of them.

Intangibles:  2.5/5
I’m totally ambivalent about this place, which, while pretty, left me feeling kind of flat.

TOTAL:  32.5/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

Matt Harrison–who the Rangers got in the offseason Mark Teixeira trade–pitches very well, striking out six in 5 2/3 innings of 4-hit, 1-run ball for Frisco.

Chris Davis has three hits for Frisco. Diminutive Shane Robinson collects three for Springfield.

(Written April 2008.)

Frawley Stadium, Wilmington, Delaware

Frawley Stadium, Wilmington, DELAWARE

Number of states: 25
States to go:  25

First game:  August 18, 2007 (Wilmington Blue Rocks 10, Lynchburg Hillcats 9)

Note to travelers:  You can absolutely get a good deal staying in Wilmington on any weekend!  I got a very, very posh hotel for cheap on Priceline for my one night in Wilmington. 

And once there, I learned why.  Wilmington is a credit-card financial capital that is completely vacated for the entire weekend.  I’m not kidding:  the hotel restaurant even closes down because it’s not financially sensible to run it.  Cabs are nearly impossible to come by (and the ones I found had drivers who were fast asleep and didn’t wake up easily…not the kind of guy I want driving me someplace).  And when I headed down to the riverwalk, figuring that would be where the action was, I found no action:  I walked the riverwalk on an absolutely gorgeous Saturday afternoon almost completely alone.  Don’t get me wrong; the city was just fine, but it was a little creepy–in an I Am Legend or This Quiet Earth kind of way–to walk around on the weekend.

Not far

off that riverwalk is Judy Johnson Field at Frawley Stadium.  I like my ballparks with a healthy side of local baseball history.  Pictures of long-ago local teams, notes about the best players to pass through the place–that’s entirely my cup of tea.  Throw in a museum, and you’ve got a friend in me.  I have never seen a better museum at a minor league park than the Delaware Sports Museum and Hall of Fame, which is on the grounds of Frawley Stadium in Wilmington.

I got the sense that there’s not much traffic through the museum, but I actually appreciated that, since one of the curators gave me a highly personalized tour through the park.  He asked me where I was from, and when I told him Washington state, he immediately escorted

me to the parts of the museum where Delaware’s greats intersected with the Pacific Northwest.  He found out I was a basketball official, so he showed me a couple of big-time college referees from Delaware.  Of course, I was able to find people I’d kind of liked from the past, where I said “Wow!  I liked this person!”  Like Steve Watson, a Denver Bronco receiver I remember well from my Colorado youth.  Or Val Whiting, who played for the Seattle Reign, my loved-and-lost ABL women’s hoops team.  It was a celebration of big fish who swam in the small pond of Delaware, and I got wonderfully personalized attention throughout.  Minor league ballparks should think small and celebrate local, and this one did–it even had a plaque to commemorate Bill McGowan, a local boy who made it big as an umpire.  It was a great place to go–the kind of place I could spend hour after hour at.  I’d like to give a special thanks to my guide.  Sorry I’ve forgotten your name.

Needless to say, this put me in a tremendous mood even before the ballgame began.  And I

lucked into the best possible night for history dorks, because I happened upon Wilmington on the day they celebrated another favorite Delaware son: Judy Johnson.  Johnson was a star Negro leaguer, and the Blue Rocks celebrate him by naming the field at Frawley Stadium Judy Johnson Field.  Judy Johnson day turned out to be a full-on celebration of Negro League history.  It ranged from the kitschy (there was a Judy Johnson bobblehead giveaway) to the more serious (a pre-game ceremony that featured Josh Gibson’s grandson).  The whole thing simply felt right, and kudos to Blue Rocks’ management for finding the right tone for the evening.

All of this is enough for me, but the Blue Rocks have

a good ballpark on top of everything else.  It’s a little big for high single-A ball, but I can forgive that since they mostly fill it.  It’s a little metallic, and the only real view is of I-95, but since I don’t have much of a preconception of Delaware, I can let that go too.  I had fine seats just a few rows back from the field, just a shade to the first-base side of home plate.  And I made a new friend along the way.

Russ joined me for this game.  He’s the third person I’ve met as a result of my association with the Network of Ballpark Collectors, which is basically a loose confederation of nerds like me.  He drove the couple of hours in to meet me, and we sat back and talked about ballparks pretty much the whole night.  Russ also saved my bacon on this evening; I had left my camera back at the hotel, and while I took the above pictures with a disposable camera from the Blue Rocks’ gift shop, he took a few good ones he kindly is letting me use:

Josh Gibson’s Grandson. Photo by Russ Silverstine. Used by permission.
Russ Silverstine. Used by permission.

It’s only appropriate, that, at the end of a fun, topsy-turvy game, it came down to a bottom-of-the-ninth single to win it for Wilmington.  The batter who delivered the hit:  Josh Johnson, an African-American kid–one of a dwindling few in baseball of late.  That little echo of history brought an end to a night where history, for me anyway, was celebrated throughout the ballpark and the museum.

Judy Johnson Field at Frawley Stadium was a great place for a sports and history junkie like me.  I’d love to head back next time I’m headed up the East Coast.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel:  8.5/10
I have never been in a stadium that celebrates local history as much as Frawley Stadium.  The only reason I penalize at all on the score here is because the view isn’t much.

Charm:  4/5
I felt well-treated at every turn, but architecturally, there’s a bit too much metal.

Spectacle:  5/5
A reverent look at baseball history.  Loved it.

Team mascot/name:  3/5


Yeah, kids, I don’t know what it is either.  I guess it’s a blue rock, or some sort of a blue dot, or whatever.  Never caught his name.  Is “Blue Rocks” an echo of the University of Delaware Blue Hens mascot?  In any event, I give some credit for creativity.

Aesthetics:  2.5/5
Not much of a view and too much metal.

Pavilion area:  4.5/5

Scoreability:  4/5

Fans:  5/5

Nice to meet you, Russ.  Maybe we’ll see this picture on the cover of Baseball Nerd Quarterly.

Intangibles:  5/5
I had a fantastic time in the museum, through the Judy Johnson ceremonies, and hanging with Russ.  I was left with a great feeling about the place.

TOTAL:  41.5/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

A back-and-forth, wild affair.  Wilmington blew leads of 4-0 and 8-4 before coming back from a 9-8 deficit in the 9th to win it.

Brian McFall and Jeremy Cleveland each bang out three hits for the Blue Rocks.  Angel Gonzalez and Jamie Romak respond in kind for the Hillcats.

Russ and I grow fond of the Hillcats’ leadoff hitter, Pedro Powell.  He is listed in the program as five-foot-seven, but we think they’re giving him at least two inches.  He was a tiny little quick dude…fun to watch.

(Written April 2008.)

Ripken Stadium, Aberdeen, Maryland

Ripken Stadium, Aberdeen, MARYLAND

Number of states: 24
States to go:  26

First game:  August 17, 2007 (Staten Island Yankees 9, Aberdeen IronBirds 0)

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

The House That Cal Built sits just off of I-95 about halfway between

Baltimore and Philadelphia, and just off an Amtrak line that includes Trenton and Wilmington–and therefore was an easy addition to the 2007 Car-Free Eco-Friendly Baseball Park Tour.  Of course, I ruined any eco-friendliness by inviting my kid sister up from DC for the game; but then, she was on her way north to kick some peoples’ asses in a paintball tournament anyway, so I don’t think I added any carcinogens to the atmosphere on this day.  And it’s nice that my kid sister could join me.  Indeed, she might be in danger of eclipsing the record for Most Ballparks I’ve Seen A Game With (Non-Wife Division):  I’ve seen games in DC, Atlanta, Seattle, and Denver (twice) with her, plus Aberdeen.  And I think we might have a record for Most People Who Have Turned Around To Look At Us Confused While We Sang At Ballgames.  In Atlanta, it was Les Mis with modified lyrics.  Here, it was the game of Just Because They’ve Stopped Playing The ’80s Song Doesn’t Mean We Should Stop Singing It.  Yeah–it’s no coincidence that our childhood home had a “no singing at the table” rule.  Did yours?  You probably didn’t need it.  Anyhow, thanks for coming up, Kath.

The ballpark is quite an attractive one.  Ripken spent his money well to create a good-looking edifice with nice bells and whistles.  The ballpark does well on the Is There Any Question Where You Are test for several reasons.  First, Ripken is omnipresent–and totally deified–in this place.  The gift shop is almost comical in its Ripkenitude.  All that was missing was the Cal Ripken Jr. Sponge and Cal Ripken Jr. Facial Blotter.  I’m just thankful Ripken hasn’t sponsored any erectile dysfunction medication.  It was especially intense during this visit because the IronBirds were playing at home during the Cal

Ripken World Series (Ripken lends his name to a league for 12-year-olds), so the man himself was in the building, and I got to see him in person for the first time since his last game at Safeco Field six years earlier.  The Hall of Famer gave his papal wave and shook hands with most of the front row, while the fans, whose beloved Orioles had not been in the same time zone as good in at least a dozen years, cheered him lustily.  It’s fun to be close to a Hall of Famer.  I only wish I could have been down in the front row.  Ripken pictures on the wall, highlights from Ripken’s career all over the joint, the name Ripken Stadium, the IronBirds name and mascot…it’s absolutely clear where we are, and who we’re paying tribute to.

Beyond Cal, the ballpark does say “Maryland” in all kinds of ways. For instance, there’s the crab shack.  I love crab, and Maryland is associated with crab about as closely as any state is with any food.  So to have the crab shack down the right field line, and watch people sucking down crab meat and leaving behind entrails…well, you can’t do much better than that.

And Ripken’s money has paid for what must be the most advanced facilities in the New York/Penn league.  The scoreboard, for instance, was every bit as cool as any I’ve seen in the minors, and I especially like the way they used the long, skinny outfield wall boards.  They showed nothing

but the player’s eyes!  I thought that was an interesting, artistic touch.  I couldn’t help but wonder if there was some unique characteristic in the eyes that tells whether or not a person will become an athlete.  And being on the inside of a gorgeous red brick edifice makes a lot of difference to me.  There didn’t seem to be a bad seat, and the IronBirds’ fans, like Orioles fans, seemed to know their baseball and enjoy their night out (although many bailed out early in the lopsided loss).

That’s the good news.  Now, the bad.

The noise.  The infernal, constant, incessant, loud, ridiculous noise.

I know I sound like your crotchety elderly neighbor now.  You know…the one who would ream you out if you hit a ball into his yard, whose vocabulary didn’t consist of anything more than “damn kids!”, who would call the cops when you were having a movie night with your friends.  Trust me:  that

is NOT me.  I’m not one of those who believes that a ballpark should be quiet like a church.  But there comes a point where the noise actually detracts from the game rather than adds to it, and Ripken Stadium goes way, way beyond that line.

One of my favorite things about baseball is the ability to have conversations during the game.  The natural breaks and ebbs and flows of a game mean that I

can catch up with my kid sister without having to feel like I’m neglecting the game.  But when one is sitting beneath a speaker–a speaker which, by the way, is cranked way up past eleven–and one actually has to shout to speak to the person next to them, that’s a problem.  It’s a problem compounded when the IronBirds decide that they need to play something literally between every damn pitch.  Why, IronBirds?  WHY?  It is completely unacceptable to butt in on my experience like this.

When I headed to the bathroom, I figured I’d get some sort of reprieve from this.  Perhaps the fine folks of the IronBirds would treat me to the radio play-by-play (in my opinion, the only acceptable thing to play in the bathroom of a ballgame).  Nope.  For reasons that are absolutely 100% beyond me, the IronBirds piped their PA music into the bathroom. I can’t see what’s going on out on the field, so these sounds are completely without context.  And beyond that, they’re hilarious while I’m peeing or pooping.  Seriously–I had to laugh out loud.  “Dah-dah-da-dot, da-daaaaah!..CHARGE!”  Or the rhythmic

clapping.  I might take advantage of this kind of encouragement when the time comes to potty-train my child, but as an adult who has been successfully housebroken for over thirty years, I found it annoying…insulting even.

“They really order you around here,” a stranger said to me on the concourse, perhaps reading my mind.  He got it exactly right.  I don’t like being ordered around anywhere, least of all at a ballpark.  Hey, Ripken stadium staff:  Back off.  Back WAY off.  Let your stadium do the work for itself.

So, in the end, as much as I felt like Ripken Stadium had going for it, and as much as I enjoyed the modern-retro-Oriole Park feel that it had, I’m afraid I come across with a more negative than positive feel for the place.  With all of the positive reviews of the park out there, I came out disappointed.  I can see why the reviews are positive…the ballpark is gorgeous in all sorts of ways.  But if I went to the Louvre, I wouldn’t want a tour guide shouting in my ear all the moments that I’m supposed to be impressed.  Turn down the volume, guys, and let us watch the game in a little more peace.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel:  8.5/10
Very good here.  Between the crab and the idolatrous Ripken-worship, there’s no question where I am.

Charm:  2.5/5
Remember the movie The Man with Two Brains?  Where Steve Martin meets a gorgeous-looking woman only to find out she has a voice like Fran Drescher’s larynx had been scrubbed raw by a cheese grater?   That’s what Ripken Stadium is like.  Visually gorgeous, but auditorily anything but.

Spectacle:  2/5
Overdone–even for short-season A ball.

Team mascot/name:  4.5/5
Ferrous (on right) and friend.  That’s a heck of a great mascot name for this team.  Any mascot name that requires high school chemistry to understand is a winner in my book.  Also, the team name is 100% appropriate.

Aesthetics:  3/5
Sorta pretty.  Not much of a view.

Pavilion area:  4/5

Scoreability:  1.5/5

Fans:  4.5/5
A sellout crowd that included my sister.  Minor deduction for so many leaving early.

Intangibles:  1.5/5
I felt assaulted, but still give the park credit for what it does well.

TOTAL:  32/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

Yankee pitcher Jason Stephens is the star, completely shutting down IronBird bats.  He pitches six innings of two-hit ball.

Matt Morris homers for Staten Island.

(Written January 2008.)

Mercer County Waterfront Ballpark, Trenton, New Jersey

Mercer County Waterfront Ballpark, Trenton NEW JERSEY

Number of states: 23
States to go:  27

Number of games: 1
First game:  August 16, 2007 (Trenton Thunder 8, Portland SeaDogs 4)

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

It is indeed a challenge, I learned back in August of 2007, to make it from the Philadelphia Airport to the Mercer County Waterfront Ballpark for a game…but it is, indeed, possible.  Because the 2007 baseball trip was the

first in my history that involved no driving (in an effort to be both cheap and green), I dashed from my flight to my SEPTA train in perhaps record time.  Since I had no luggage to check, I made it onto a train that left only ten minutes after my flight arrived.  And since I wanted to be totally sure that I could legally hop onto the train downtown (for a transfer to Trenton), I even asked the man who was working on the ticket machine…could I buy a ticket on board?  Yes, he told me.  Well, nobody asked me for money or a ticket or proof I belonged there or absolutely anything else all the way to Walnut Street, where I detrained, feeling lucky and a little bit dirty.  If anybody from SEPTA happens to read this, I owe you seven bucks or whatever it was.  I wasn’t trying to dodge a fare (as should be noted by the way I duly paid my way from downtown Philly to Trenton).  I asked if I could pay on the train, got on, and then nobody asked me for a cent.  Please do not prosecute me.

The fine folks who work with the Trenton Thunder will work with you if you

happen to be crashing on their park directly from the airport, I learned.  The Thunder were nothing but nice to me.  I phoned ahead to ask them if I could keep my bag somewhere during the ballgame and pick it up afterwards…I had no time to get to my hotel prior to the game, as I simply took a cab from the train station to the ballpark.  I therefore got to meet several of the fine folks from the Thunder, who didn’t seem to mind when I had to unpack a lot of my suitcase to get to my hat, scorecard, and pencils (and thus unwittingly let some of the fine folks of south Jersey see a few pairs of socks and underwear).  Indeed, after the game, they were nice enough to call me a cab, and when that cab never showed up (the dispatcher seemed to have far more important social engagements than to help me), a worker told me that the nice hotel I had treated myself to, the Trenton Courtyard by Marriott, would routinely send a van to the ballpark to pick up a guest.  Sold!  So, even if it weren’t a great ballpark, the Thunder won me over with fine customer service.

The good news for them is that they work at a splendid ballpark.  I was a big fan of Mercer County Waterfront Park almost from the moment of my arrival.  I was a little bit concerned when my cab took me through slum after slum until we were just a few feet from the ballpark, simply because I was worried that the ballpark would have a Comerica Park feel…a baseball theme-park fortress designed to get me to ignore the urban blight around me.  But it didn’t have that feel, I think because of the immediate surroundings.  The ballpark is right on the Delaware, so if George Washington were a lefty pull hitter with power, he could knock one into the river (although likely not over).  It’s possible to walk along a path between the ballpark and the river, and some of the crappier seats in the ballpark offer a view across the river of Morrisville, Pennsylvania.  And with some rowdy fans on hand (the Yankee-affiliated Thunder were facing the Red Sox-affiliated

Portland SeaDogs), there was no question where I was.  The ballpark therefore aces the important Is There Any Question Where You Are test.

Further, Trenton does well in celebrating Trenton baseball history rather than concentrating on Yankee baseball history. 

A look at their retired numbers tells the story–Nomar Garciaparra and Tony Clark share billing with Jackie Robinson.  The idea that a ballplayer best known as a Red Sox gets a nod with a retired number at a Yankee-affiliated ballpark tells me that they have their priorities straight–Trenton first, parent club second.  Additionally, I was struck by a female name, Nicole Sherry, on their list of former Thunders (what is one member of the Thunder called anyway?  A Clap?) who have made the show.  A quick Google search reveals that, after two years in Trenton, Sherry went on to become head groundskeeper for the Orioles.  It’s great that they give her some recognition.

I got one of my favorite seats on this night…in the very front row, in a seat that juts out from the main stands into foul territory.  I could look back into the Trenton dugout from my position, but more importantly, I got an opportunity to watch the work of the first-base umpire (whose name I can no longer locate) quite closely.  No close plays transpired at first this night, but I enjoyed seeing the difference between his regular “out” call and his sell “out” call.  On the former, he wouldn’t even vocalize at all, but on the latter, he sure would.  On top of that, I got to enjoy all of this while taking advantage of the significant ledge in front of me as a table:

A cheap cheese steak, a FREE scorecard, a gorgeous night on the river, and up-close double-A baseball.  What more can a guy ask for?

Hell of a nice night at Mercer County Waterfront Park.  If you’re in Philly or South Jersey, it’s worth the trip up.  It’s definitely one of the top ballparks I’ve been to on the East Coast.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel:  9/10
On top of everything else the ballpark had going for it–the river, the cheese steak, the retired numbers–they have concession stands shaped like commuter trains.  Nice!

Charm:  4/5
Quite nice.  Might have scored even higher were it not for the nearby urban blight.

Spectacle:  4/5
I know there were some promotions, but I can’t remember them.  That’s a good sign for quality double-A ball.

Team mascot/name:  2.5/5

Boomer with handler.  Nothing special about him or his name–I can’t even tell what he is.  Also, I’m not a fan of the name “Thunder.”

Aesthetics:  4.5/5
Quite a nice place right there on the river.

Pavilion area:  4.5/5
I especially like the places where the river is visible.  And I’m sort of counting the river walkway outside the stadium.  It’s my party and I’ll break my rules if I want.

Scoreability:  5/5

That’s right…FREE SCORECARDS.  And they say to PLEASE take one.  Then, they follow that up with conscientiously-placed scoring decisions, including the too-often-skipped wild pitch/passed ball calls.  One of the best ballparks I’ve ever been to in this regard.

Fans:  3.5/5

Intangibles:  4.5/5
It was a splendid night.  This is a ballpark I want to visit again.

TOTAL:  41.5/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

Gabriel Lopez is the batting star for the Thunder, going 4-for-4 with 3 RBIs.

Andrew Pinckney homered for the SeaDogs.

(Written April 2008.)

Fox Cities Stadium, Appleton, Wisconsin

Time Warner Cable Field at Fox Cities Stadium, Appleton, WISCONSIN

Number of states: 30
States to go:  20

Number of games: 1 (but was there for a cancelled game in 2006)
First game:  August 1, 2009 (Wisconsin Timber Rattlers 11, Quad City River Bandits 3)

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

SPRING BREAK…WISCONSIN STYLE!!!

Make no mistake…we were ready.  We were set to dress in multiple layers.  We were going to sit in our front-row seat and hang there in the cold with my Baby Mariners.

Just as we were set

to climb into our long underwear at the hotel, I thought to call the team to see if they’d wimped out of the game.  They had…the game had been postponed.

What?  Come on!  What’s a little sub-zero windchill between friends?  Play ball!

We asked the question:  “Hey, we’re in from Seattle for the ballgame, and we’re not coming back.”  (This usually confuses people.)  Can we get a refund?  The answer:  No.  But they can trade it in for merchandise if we get to their store before it closes in 15 minutes.

Needless to say, we booked down to the store.  When we got there, the cashier was amazed…he said there was no way we could exchange the tickets for merchandise.  He hunted down the guy who told us we could, and I guess pummeled

him into submission, because he showed up, tails between his legs, and said “Well, we can get you a free cap from last night’s game.”  Well, it’s something.

While he spent 15 minutes looking for a cap (how could he have misplaced them so quickly?), we checked out the park.  I approached the beautiful “Wall of Fame” prepared for a look at Appleton baseball history and big moments.  Instead, in the central three panels of the display, all I saw was loads of hats, balls, and bats…honoring rich sponsors.  Ick.  (There was a little bit of baseball-related display, but only on the periphery of the display.)  But then, what can one expect from a place so

pimped out that its name is officially Time Warner Cable Field at Fox Cities Stadium?  Double ick.  I can’t judge the place since I didn’t see a game there, but I’m concerned it would have felt like San Jose:  baseball not as baseball, but as a promotions transference device.

Idea:  “Girls Gone Wild:  Appleton.”  We hang out outside Appleton-area bars and look for drunken hot college-aged women.  They sign releases and, while we film them, open up their overcoats to show us the parkas

underneath.

15 minutes later, the guy found us…we had ducked out of the stinging cold and into the office.  He never found the hats…so he brought us baseballs.  Better than nothing, I suppose.  We donated our tickets to whatever charity they team up with–way, way better than our comically sad experience with Huntsville–and headed back to our warm hotel.

UPDATE 2009–We returned two and a half years later when a family gathering had us in Northern Michigan.  I am pleased to report that our concerns aboutan over-promotionalized ballpark were mostly unfounded.  We joined a packed house

on a Saturday night in what felt to me like a scaled-down major-league ballpark.  And, incredibly, I mean that as a compliment.

In general, I don’t care for it when ballparks try to act big when, in reality, everybody knows they’re small.  But Fox Cities Stadium has figured out that they can take the best factors of big ballparks and still have the intimacy and charm of a small ballpark.

Case in point:  television screens.  I know that small minor league squads don’t have their games televised.  But the Timber Rattlers

did very well to film the game and have it running live while waiting in line at the concession stands.  This is rarely seen at the minor league level, so it’s appreciated.  Additionally, the Timber Rattlers have a beautiful scoreboard, and they know how to use it.  Unlike too many ballparks who input stats before the game and leave it alone, the Rattlers update the stats with every at-bat, putting up the results of previous at-bats in the later innings.  I’m honestly not sure I’ve ever seen that at any level other than the major leagues.  And as far as a bar one can drink in while watching the game?  Fox Cities Stadium has one–a small-but-nice one.  I seldom, if ever, leave my seat during a game, but on a cold night like the one in 2006, I’d certainly be tempted.

There’s not a whole lot going for the ballpark as far as panorama goes.  Past left field, there are loads of trees; past center field, a pedestrian overpass; past right field, a small highway.  The natural surroundings don’t do much in the “is there any question where you are” test, but on the interior, there’s a fair amount of Wisconsin to be found.  Most impressively to me was the unquestionably Wisconsin accent of the promotions guy.  I kept wanting him to do more promotions

so I could here those bizarre short A’s.  And with plenty of beer and cheese curds around, there was no question as to where I was.

By the way, I had never seen a cheese curd, either on a menu or in person, before arriving at the concession stand at Fox Cities Stadium.  I think I confused the worker a little bit–a high-school aged kid–when I asked if I could see the cheese curds to take a picture of them.  I did not purchase them.  Doubling my cholesterol levels was not on the to-do list for this vacation.

I was quite impressed that the Timber Rattlers seemed to have filled up the ballpark on a random

Saturday night.  Sure, there were fireworks, and that might have increased the turnstile count a bit, but I don’t get the sense that these were fireworks fans merely enduring a baseball game to get to the pyrotechnics.  They were there to watch and enjoy some baseball.  The Timber Rattlers helped this atmosphere by letting the game take center stage.  Their promotions were not out of control–they limited them to between-innings shenanigans and announcements, although their goal was to pack as many as possible into those few minutes–but after Missoula, that was a refreshing, comparatively-sedate approach.  On a gorgeous night like this, the fine people of northwest Wisconsin seem to have figured out that they’ve got a good thing going.  Many wandered out to the right-field home run porch, where they squinted into the sun and hoped a home run ball came their way (anyone with a home-run-porch ticket who caught a home run on the fly won beer for a year).  Others settled in and cheered for the home team. It was a fine experience.

Appleton also served as my son’s fourth state in which he has seen a baseball game, after Oregon, Washington, and Montana.  It was close to his 12th or 13th game, and my wife and I had already learned something:  the scoreboard camerapeople find babies, especially cute ones like my son, very quickly and very easily.  Out of the dozen-or-so games the boy had attended at this point, this was the fourth or fifth time he found his way onto the scoreboard.  Alas, my camera couldn’t figure out whether I wanted to focus on the scoreboard or on the foul-ball net, but if you look closely, you can see that these blurry people are my wife and son.

Only one quick complaint:  the game operations folks need to be a little more sensitive to injuries.  After the Timber Rattlers’ Sean McCraw fouled a ball off of his foot and was writhing on the ground, the sound guy almost immediately–far too quickly–played “Mambo #5.”  Later, the River Bandits’ Frederick Panejo stayed down after a diving catch:  and before the trainer could get there, they played another song.  That felt a little disrespectful.  I’m not sure they should stay silent the entire time, but couldn’t they start with some PA announcements before having us boogie down?  I think so.

But on the whole, that’s a minor complaint about what was a fine night overall.  The Timber Rattlers provide a mini-major-league park rather than a minor-league park, and the experience is a fine one overall.  I’m glad we made it back for a warm night rather than a long-underwear experience.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel:  6.5/10
Pretty good.  There’s not much of a view, but there wasn’t any question that we were in Wisconsin.

Charm:  4/5
Sure.  A hair corporate, but still, sure.

Spectacle:  3.5/5
A hair overdone at times, but this is the low minors, so I can live with it.

Team mascot/name:  3/5


Here’s Fang.  I’m not sure whether this is a locally-appropriate name.  I’m ambivalent about it.

Aesthetics:  4/5
It’s a lovely ballpark in a hum-drum location.

Pavilion area:  4.5/5
Quite nice.  Lots to do, yet one is never outside the view of the ballgame.  I especially like the right-field area.

Scoreability:  4.5/5
I appreciate the updated scoreboard graphics.

Fans:  4.5/5
They packed the place and focused on the game.  I can’t ask for too much more.

Intangibles:  3.5/5
A fine night.  They’re docked a little bit for the confusion of our 2006 experience, but they mostly made up for it.

TOTAL:  38/50

BASEBALL STUFF I SAW HERE:

Osvaldo Morales’ first-inning homer gives the River Bandits an early lead, but the Timber Rattlers come back, mostly thanks to lamentable relief pitching by the Quad Cities’ Nick McCully (six batters:  walk, walk, walk, single, single, single.)

Brock Kjeldgaard has three hits and scores three times.

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.)

Pfitzner Stadium, Woodbridge, Virginia

Pfitzner Stadium, Woodbridge, VIRGINIA

Number of states: still 21
States to go:  29

First game:  August 19, 2006 (Kinston Indians 6, Potomac Nationals 1)

Way, way, way out into the DC suburbs is a tiny minor-league ballpark.  While the occupants try to get a new ballpark every year, they continue to return to this run-of-the-mill field that’s a part of a high school complex in

Woodbridge, Virginia.  It’s uncertain how much longer they’ll remain, but I got in a game in at Pfitzner Stadium during the summer of 2006.

The ballpark itself is fairly nondescript.  It does not pass the “do we have any idea where we are” test…I saw no evidence we were in Virginia or near Washington DC.  We honestly could have been anywhere.  The ballpark is charmless as well.  There’s too much netting around the infield.  I lost virtually all memory of the place within a few months.  But, and for the first time, the part that troubled me the most was the way that the team’s owner actually interfered with my enjoyment of a game.

I don’t mind some wackiness and promotions as a part of my minor league baseball experience.  But it cannot interfere with the baseball on the field.  Art Silber, the owner of the Nationals, did just that.  Apparently, on Saturday nights, Silber coaches

first base for the team…and he did for the first half of the game or so, before taking a seat behind home plate in his baseball uniform.  This bugged me in the extreme.  What we have here are players and coaches who are trying to work their way up towards the major leagues, and Silber is interfering with that goal for each of them.  I’m not certain what or how much a first-base coach contributes, but the idea that this guy is living out some long-unaccomplishable fantasy at the expense of people who still have a legitimate shot at making the bigs…well, that bugged me.  He might say he’s showing his love of the game; I say it shows he’s not taking the game seriously.  What if a young rich person (like Master P a few years ago, or maybe Marc Cuban) bought a minor league team and decided that, rather than coaching first base, he wanted to play first base? Why is that any less ridiculous?  Mr. Silber, you’re out of line.  You interfered with the baseball.

On the other side of the coin, I don’t much mind if players take jobs that normally go to others.  Steve Mortimer sang the

national anthem.  He was nervous…probably more nervous than he was playing first base that day.  It made me root for him all the more…we don’t have enough Renaissance men like that in the world.

Probably the best part of my trip was getting to hang out with Tom.  We found ourselves a seat away from some others, and we said wacky stuff to each other throughout the game.  That’s just the way it happens.  He told me a good deal about Virginia politics.  We also had a lot of fun making up personalities for the players.  Singing Mortimer was easy, of

course, but it went further.  J.D. Martin was pitching for the Indians, and since it was his first game for Kinston, we decided just to call him “New Guy.”  We imagined his fellow Indians getting annoyed having to tell him how the copier worked, or carefully telling him which guys are the cool ones and which ones are the dorks to avoid.  A relief pitcher, Cody Bunkelman…well, he was fantastic.  Just awesome.  I caught a particularly resistant strain of Bunkelmania that day.  Tom thought I was insane.  He didn’t see Bunkelmania spreading across the nation.  I certainly do.

Perhaps the most damning aspect of this ballpark is that now, only a few months after going to the ballgame, I’ve forgotten almost everything about the ballpark.  So I will finish this not with words, but with a couple more pictures.


BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel:  4/10
Not much.  Only a local Congressman’s pitch and Uncle Slam save the score at all.

Charm:  2.5/5
Nothing too special.

Spectacle: 2.5/5
Rule #1:  Don’t let your spectacle interfere with the baseball.  The owner coaching…well, that interferes.  But I did like the player singing the anthem.

Team mascot/name:  3/5

Uncle Slam and me.  I like puns, so this name works.  But the team name?  Why not stick with “Cannons”?  So much better.

Aesthetics:  2/5
Some nice trees, but the ballpark itself is quite dull.

Pavilion area:  3/5

Scoreability:  1.5/5

Fans:  5/5
Props to my buddy Tom.

Intangibles:  2/5
It was a fun night, but the owner bugged me.

TOTAL:  25.5/50

Four Indians pitchers–J.D. “New Guy” Martin, Cody Bunkelman, Ryan Knippschild, and Randy Newsom–combine on a 4-hitter, allowing no earned runs.  Martin strikes out 4 in 4 innings, giving up two hits.  Bunkelman pitches two perfect innings in relief, striking out three and picking up his third win of the year.

Rodney Choy Foo, Nathan Panther, and Matt Whitney homer for the Indians.

Steve Mortimer goes 1-for-3 with a double for the Nationals.

(Written December 2006.)