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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.

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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.
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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.)

Tropicana Field

Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, FL

Number of games: 1
First game:  April 10, 2005 (A’s 6, Devil Rays 1)

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

It’s a hell of a drive from Miami to Tampa, especially when a fan is trying to make a Sunday afternoon game after a Saturday night game after a Friday night red-eye flight from the opposite corner of the country.  Perhaps this was a foolhardy move, but I made it.  I zipped across Alligator Alley after midnight.  Traffic was very light…just a couple of truckers and me.  I had a hotel room set up in Naples, which I took to be about the halfway point.  As usual, very nice people guided me along the way.  I didn’t know where my hotel was, so although I wasn’t hungry, I stopped at an all-night McDonald’s off the interstate–the first exit in Naples–for fries and to ask for a phone

book.  The manager didn’t have a phone book, but he went to the back room and actually called the hotel to ask directions.  There are good people everywhere in the world.  If you’re in Naples, be sure to grab yourself an adult happy meal and thank the guy for going above and beyond.

I made it to St. Pete in plenty of time for that afternoon’s ballgame.  I met up with my ubiquitous Florida relatives.  I would be willing to bet that more people have relatives in Florida than in any other state.  I wonder if anyone has done the research on that?  My relatives are from my mom’s side and fairly big sports fans.  They were kind enough to get me a ticket and meet me at will call.  Once I got to the seats, I was met by one of their relatives, who was across the ocean from England and taking in her first baseball game. 

Gloria was her name, and I took it upon myself to teach her the game as best as I could.  I lived in England for a year in college, and while there, learned trace elements of cricket, so I could compare a few of the basics for her.  And for that, I got to hear her English-little-old-lady-accent analysis of the game.  When Joey Gathright was caught stealing in the fifth inning–this after I had explained the risks and benefits of the speedy Gathright’s imminent stolen base attempt–her analysis of the play was as follows:  “Oh!  That was dear, wasn’t it?”  I love that British use of “dear” for “expensive.”  We must try to get it to catch on in this country.

The ballpark itself certainly tried hard, but in my mind, nothing can get me past its status as an ugly dome.  It’s quite simple:  I’m from rainy Seattle, I’m on vacation in Florida–the Sunshine State, for goodness sake–and I want to spend my afternoon at a ballgame in the sun.  I asked my local aunt why they built it as a dome.  Her answer:  “Without it, we’d never get a game in.  It rains at 4:00 every afternoon.”  I didn’t point out that it was about 4:00 when I asked that…and it wasn’t raining.  At the very least, couldn’t Tampa have an open-air retractable roof like Seattle’s?  Secondly, I’m afraid the building’s interior is simply ugly…grey colored throughout, covered with advertising. There’s an annoying orange catwalk which surrounds the stadium, blocking off the leadoff hitters on the scoreboard.  It’s no wonder that this, combined with Devil Rays teams that have literally never been anything other than dismal, leads to so very many empty seats at Tropicana Field.

In spite of this, Tropicana Field has supplanted the HHH Metrodome for the dubious honor of best domed stadium I’ve ever been to.  It doesn’t have the layout of the dreaded multi-purpose stadiums…it appears to have been built for the exclusive purpose of baseball.  They use the long, skinny scoreboard that wraps around 90 degrees of the field to put long

messages about each batter; sometimes something as basic as his hometown (which I appreciate) and sometimes longer, deeper statistics.  The ushers dress up in flowery shirts–totally appropriate for the place, thus aiding in the do-you-know-where-you-are test (which the ballpark still fails).   They have a nice mosaic path of fish swimming to the stadium.  There’s even a real-life moat-like ditch spectators cross when approaching the ballpark from the south.  The field turf is the only kind of turf an indoor ballpark should be allowed to use.  Although players have complained about the full dirt basepaths (rather than the cutouts that turf ballparks usually go with), they do add to the ballpark aesthetically.  So they’re trying to make the best of a bad situation–a lousy team in a yucky dome.

After the game, I got to talk to one of the matriarchs of my family…I think she’s my oldest living relative.  She didn’t come to the ballpark, but we talked for a while after the game while I audiotaped her.  She’d recently lost a sister who was a huge Tigers fan.  Aunt Joyce.  I don’t remember meeting her…if I did, it was either a long time ago, in a room with a hundred relatives, or both…but she and I were both fans enough that the family decided that I should get her Tigers scrapbook.  Aunt Joyce was a librarian who scored the games, so I was looking forward to seeing handwritten scoresheets featuring Gehringer and Greenberg.  Turned out not to be true…her big season was the 1968 season, and rather than her scoresheets, there were meticulously clipped newspaper articles of the Tigers’ 1968 pennant and playoff run.  It was fun to see.  I was hoping I could see at least one scoresheet, as that would be the tightest link between me and this relative-I-wish-I’d-met.  I got my wish on the inside of a 1971 All-Star Game program.  She must have gone to the game at Tiger Stadium.  She gave up scoring it after the fourth inning–and I can forgive that, this being an All-Star game with a million substitutions, and the program scoresheet not being sufficient for that.  But she scored it carefully, with small, precise writing.  And she scored it for long enough to get in Reggie Jackson’s famous homer off of the light in right field.  I sincerely wish I’d gotten to talk to her.  I saw Dwayne Murphy do the same thing.

All in all–a nice afternoon with nice people in a not-so-nice ballpark.  I enjoyed it, but won’t shed any tears if this team moves on from this ballpark.  There’s nothing at all special about it.

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

A bit of a dull ballgame.  Oakland’s game-winning runs came on three walks, two hits, and two sacrifices.

Scott Hatteberg homered and went 3-for-5.

Aubrey Huff went 3-for-4.

(Written April 2005.)

Dolphins Stadium

Dolphins Stadium, Miami, FL

Number of games: 1
First game:  April 9, 2005 (Nationals 3, Marlins 2, 10 innings)

To the relief of all of my students who struggle with possessive apostrophes, Dolphins Stadium became Dolphin Stadium on April 6, 2006.  As of the 2009 season, however, the ballpark is called Land Shark Stadium.

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

I had never been to Florida when I traveled there over my spring break in 2005 to take care of the Southeastern United States’ major league baseball stadiums. 

This might serve as a surprise for many of you for whom Florida is a regular vacation destination, but I in fact made it to 45 states before I made it to Florida.    I had heard negative things about Miami as a tourist destination, and therefore had low expectations once I disembarked from the red-eye, lathered my pasty Seattle skin with suntan lotion, and headed out for my one-day-to-see-Miami adventure.  I had a fun day puttering around the town before fighting through God-awful traffic to get to an early-evening start at the too-distant-from-the-city-center ballpark.  All in all, the ballpark was subpar, but the wonderful fans of Miami made the night memorable.

Let’s start with the name, which gives away the main problem with the stadium.  Its original name, Joe Robbie Stadium, came from the Dolphins’ owner.  Its second name, Pro Player Stadium (which, as of the start of the 2005 season, still graced a few forgotten signs both inside and outside the stadium), was a fairly typical dull corporate name,

but when that name was gone, it reverted to Dolphins Stadium.  The name says it all:  it is a football stadium, sitting on Dan Marino Drive.  Indeed, calling this a “multipurpose stadium” is a bit kind, as baseball is quite clearly an afterthought at this ballpark.  This leads to a few problems with atmosphere that are insurmountable.  Most importantly, there’s no place in the seats where one can see outside of the ballpark.  I even went up to the top row of the top deck (quite a trip) to see what kind of views it offered.  Once there, I discovered that the wall behind the back row was about nine feet tall and could not be seen over.  And since the stadium is the same height all the way around, there’s an enclosed feeling that doesn’t work for baseball.  It’d be great for football, I’m sure…I bet that 70,000 Dolphins fans can make a lot of noise there.  But it’s terrible for baseball, where I like my eyes to be able to wander outside the ballpark during quiet times.  Additionally, the place feels empty even when it isn’t.  About 30,000 people were at the game I attended–not bad for the first Saturday of the season.  But in a football stadium, that feels desolate.  The seats’ annoying orange color doesn’t help, either.  It’s just not a very nice atmosphere.

One of the things I was most looking forward to at the ballpark was seeing the salsa dancing. 

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I happened to see a special on cable TV listing the top ten ballpark foods.  There, I learned that the Marlins have a salsa band play before Saturday night games.  Sure enough, when I got there, there was a salsa band playing.  Sort of.  By playing, I mean “mailing it in.”  For starters, although the band featured a singer, a guitar player, and a drummer, most of their noise came from a boom box which appeared to be playing karaoke versions of their salsa favorites.  Secondly, when I arrived at the ballpark, I found the drummer actually talking on a cell phone while he played.  This has to be the worst possible thing a performer can do.  Was he working on a real estate transaction?  Was he missing beats with his left hand while he played with his right?  Combine that with the yucky concrete concourse where they played, which was bad for both acoustics and atmosphere, and there wasn’t any reason to hang around and listen to them…and few people did.

One more complaint–in spite of the smallish crowd, the concession lines at Dolphins Stadium were the longest I’ve ever experienced.  I got in line a half hour before the game began, and barely made it back for first pitch.  The service was slow, but the folks made up for it by being rude.  You might not want to head to the concourse to eat, at least not on the lower level.

In spite of all of these negatives, I still had a marvelous time at Dolphins Stadium, in good part due to the wonderful fans around me. 

I met a kindred spirit seated behind me.  Jackie is about 17 years old–a senior in high school–but appeared to watch the game in the same spirit as I do.  She had a stat or an anecdote for every batter who came to the plate, not only for her beloved Marlins, but even for the Nationals.  And she had a photographic memory for the details of the game.  To be honest, I really felt like I was listening to a version of myself from 20-some years earlier.  Baseball wasn’t my sport yet–it was basketball.  I could feel myself sitting in McNichols Sports Arena, telling my dad and anyone else would would listen minutiae about Dan Issel, Alex English, Mike Evans, and any Nuggets opponents whose Statis Pro Basketball cards I remembered.  It was really wonderful to listen to her riffs.  She’d chug along in perfect English until she came to a word where Spanish would be a better match for her thoughts, at which point she’d seamlessly throw in the Spanish word.  I eavesdropped for six innings before I finally told her family how fun it was to listen to her.

Jackie’s eidetic skill was most apparent in the following exchange she had with her dad after a screaming foul ball landed not far from us:

JACKIE’S DAD:  “Remember that game we came to last year, where they guy near us got hit in the head by a foul ball?”
JACKIE:  “Yes.  That was when we saw the Braves on April 24th last year.  A Saturday game.  Brad Penny got the win, and Conine had his first homer of the year.  The foul was off of Cabrera’s bat.”

Guess what?  Every detail of that was accurate.  I checked it out.

Now that’s a fan after my own heart.  Someone asked Jackie how she knew so much about the game.  Her answer could apply to anyone who’s knowledgeable about any topic, from history to calculus to baseball to musical theater to motorcycles:  “Baseball is interesting.  I just watch, listen, and read a lot.”  Charming kid.

I also had a bizarre small-world moment after meeting a Floridian next to me.  He casually mentioned that his son played Division III baseball.  I don’t know what Division III schools are in the Southeast, so I asked where his son went to school.  His answer:  “A school called Kenyon in Gambier, Ohio.”  What a bizarre moment!  I went to Kenyon, and only missed his son by a couple of years.  The odds against that were astonishing…I’m from Seattle, so Dolphins’ Stadium is 4,000 miles away from home and 1,500 miles away from Kenyon.

As the game wore on, I grew to like these people around me, and once they started talking to me (because they figured out that I was trying to get to all of the ballparks), we got to be buds, and I started rooting for the Marlins, even though I don’t have any emotional attachment to them

at all.  It came down to the bottom of the ninth inning.  When Carlos Delgado came up with the Marlins down by one, I said to the Kenyon father:  “You know, Carlos Delgado leads the league in the very esoteric statistic of Most Home Runs in Paul’s Presence By A Non-Rockie or Mariner.”  Not surprisingly, the guy looked at me with a confused expression, but broke out of it in time to say “Well, that’s good news.  We could use the help.”  Next pitch:  Carlos hits it out.  His first homer as a Marlin.  I take full credit for that!  I high-fived all my new friends.

Points for the organist at Dolphins Stadium, for playing snippets from tangentially-appropriate songs as every Nationals’ player approached the plate–snippets that were only appropriate with some thought.  For example:

Jose Vidro–The Carpenters’ “Do You Know the Way to San Jose”
Livan Hernandez–Elton John’s “Levon”
Ryan Church–Dixie Cups’ “Goin’ to the Chapel”


Nick Johnson–“Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town”

The organist would play bits buried in the verses of the songs, too, so that I had to think ahead to future lyrics to get the jokes.  Fun stuff.

Special thanks to the Dolphins Stadium usher who saved my bacon.  I had lost my rental car key…it had fallen out of my pocket when I took my camera out to take pictures of the postgame fireworks display (always a silly idea, yet one I keep trying when I’m at a game with fireworks).  It had fallen out of my shorts pocket.  When you’re carrying a big wallet, cellphone, tickets, camera, and more in your pockets, it’s easy to lose keys when taking things in and out of them.  I was trying to figure out how I’d make the game at Tropicana Field the next afternoon, and my new friends were desperately looking for a single car key, when an usher found the key for me–and, incredibly, refused my grateful tip.  I only wish guys like him worked the concession stands.

So while I believe that there are a lot of negative aspects to Dolphins Stadium–namely, that it’s the Dolphins’ Stadium first and foremost, and that baseball isn’t meant to be there–I still had a tremendous time there with the residents of South Florida.  I continue to be impressed with how nice people are when I travel, and on this swing through Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina, the fine folks of Miami were the nicest I encountered.  Great baseball fans, all of them.  Although things don’t look good for them as I write this in May of 2005, I hope something comes through for them and that they get a stadium they deserve someday soon.

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

A tremendous ballgame.  Ryan Church and Vinny Castilla homer back-to-back to give Washington a 5th-inning lead, but the Marlins tie it up with Delgado’s 9th-inning homer.  Two batters later, Paul LoDuca pounds one to left field that I am convinced ends the game…I start high-fiving people again…but it turns out that, rather than a home run, it’s a single that hit six inches from the top of the tall left-field scoreboard.  The game goes to extra innings, and the Nats win it on Jose Guillen’s homer in the 10th.

(Written April 2005.)