Eats, Major Leagues, Oddity, Travel

Milwaukee 

Friend John Nebel and I got an early start from Detroit and drove across Michigan in a thundering downpour.  I knew it rained hard in the Midwest but I didn’t know it could last, with such intensity, for so long.  It finally stopped near the Indiana border and we were able to stop and start through the Chicago traffic without a drop of precipitation.

We stopped in the early afternoon at Miller Park (finally a stadium named after beer instead of a bank or insurance company!), which is a few miles west of downtown Milwaukee, to buy our tickets for the game.  Folks were already lining up to get into the parking lot, which hadn’t opened yet.  Puzzling.  We later learned why when, after getting settled at our motel, we returned to find the lot heavily occupied by the faithful deeply engrossed in the joys of tailgating.  That was a first on this trip.  That sense of commitment was reinforced when the national anthem was sung by a Lutheran church choir.  And the Midwestern ambience was further enhanced when, during the seventh inning stretch, everyone sang (after “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”) “Roll Out the Barrel.”  Even though this is Wisconsin and not Minnesota, I had visions of Lake Wobegon.

Miller Park is an enigma.  It was built in 2001, around the same time as so many of the modern era parks, but is the only one with a fan shaped retractable roof.  That structure and the walls that support it convey a sense of enclosure, even when the roof is open.  The stadium seems small but will hold more than 40,000.  Baseball, being rooted in failure (a good hitter – .300 average – fails 70% of the time), depends on hope, and the vista of the outfield with the geography beyond are symbols of that striving.  This slightly claustrophobic field diminishes the optimism inherent in the game.  I didn’t love it.

The game itself frankly wasn’t very interesting.  I had not heard of a single Brewer in the starting lineup (Lucroy was held out pending a possible trade, Braun recovering from a minor injury).  This was the second time in a week I’d seen the Pirates, but they didn’t have the offense I saw in Pittsburgh.  Perhaps it was because Andrew McCutchen has lost his locks, a fact I had completely missed in the prior game (who is the Delilah to this Samson?).  Or more likely just a night typified by the Pirates rookie pitcher getting his first hit to right only to be thrown out at first for failing to hustle down the line.  Brewers won 5-3.

And of course, ballpark food.  I have been dreaming of the wonderful bratwurst awaiting me in Wisconsin.  This was the appointed day when I would reach baseball culinary nirvana.  It didn’t happen.  The brat was serviceable but uninspired.  It didn’t hold a candle to the one I had at Target Field in (here we go again) Minnesota last year.  No sautéed onions or peppers.  Just a ballpark meal that will not engender fond memories.  The Leinenkugel Summer Shandy was a nice counterpoint  though – a light German Weiss with a refreshing hint of lemon.  The only unusual item on offer was a donut and custard sandwich – I’m not that courageous.

Now a word about groundskeepers.  Every ballpark has them, of course, and we see them watering and grooming the infield, laying down the lines and occasionally doing a dance during the in-game spiff-up (I have yet to see that on this trip).  But before the game, during the team’s road trips, in the off season, they are busy as well, insuring that the grass is healthy, that the infield is level, that conditions will be ideal for every game so that the skill of the players won’t be thwarted by the bad bounce off a stray rock or a slip in a wet spot in the outfield.  Milwaukee’s crew moved at a trot – faster than any other so far.  Here are pictures of groundskeepers in several stadiums doing their their pre- and mid-game duties.


By the way, while it is tradition to display the names and numbers of a team’s greats from yesteryear on the stadium walls, who knew that recently retired baseball “commissioner-for-life” Bud Selig was a Milwaukee Brewer or that he had a number (let alone a uniform)???

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Eats, Major Leagues, Travel

Detroit 

BASEBALL (AND CULTURE)

The day off apparently disrupted the universe because I found myself in the wonderful Detroit Institute of the Arts for the entire morning.  I’ve visited art museums all over the world, but this one wasn’t on my radar.  Thanks to the suggestion of my friend and Michigan native, John Muench, I decided to pay a visit and I was not disappointed.  You may recall that there was serious talk of selling off the entire collection during Detroit’s bankruptcy.  Proof that there is a god lies in the fact that didn’t happen.

The museum is in a splendid building, worthy of a look itself, and has a wide variety in its collection, with some stunning Islamic art, many pieces by African-American artists, several by my favorite, Rembrandt, and a good representation of the European masters.  The feature attraction, however, is found in the large central atrium.  All four walls of that airy expanse bear murals by Diego Rivera detailing the industrial scenes that highlight the economy of the area.  They are dramatic and well suited to the space.  There were also a couple of paintings on our theme – baseball.  One shows a game in the 1860’s and the other is appropriately titled “Hard Ball.”  If you’re anywhere near the area and have even the slightest interest in art, don’t miss this gem.

Now to baseball.  I was joined for this game by my friends John Muench, in the area for business and family visits, and John Nebel of Seattle, who flew in for a weekend baseball fling.  As Muench said, “You can never have too many Johns” (did he mean “johns”?).

The Tigers took on the Astros in an important game because both are contending for the wild card in the American League.  The Tigers were coming off their sweep of the Red Sox and a good crowd was on hand at Comerica Park for the festivities.  Comerica is named after a Detroit bank that since moved to Dallas.  What’s wrong with Tiger Stadium (which natives speak fondly of, but I never had the chance to visit)?  The stadium seemed smaller than others on this trip, but actually has a seating capacity over 40,000.  It is located, like many, right downtown, and we found easy parking a block away.

A pitching duel this was not.  The Astros scored two in the first, followed by the Tigers matching them in the bottom of the inning.  From then on, it was batting practice.  The Tigers chased Astros starter McHugh after one and two-thirds and by the end of that inning it was 9-2 for the Tigers.  There were five home runs in the game and four other fly balls to the center field wall that would have been homers in most parks.  That point is 420 feet from home, the deepest I’ve seen so far.  The game also featured three bats that escaped the hitter’s grip on a swing, one of which went into the stands (without apparent injury, fortunately).

There were thunderstorms in the area and when we arrived, the tarp covered the infield.  Not another rainout!  No, no rain, but as you can see, a seriously saturated area in front of home plate.  Now there is a long tradition in baseball of the home team grooming the field to its advantage – sloping toward the foul line to cause bunts to go foul, not cutting the grass too short to slow grounders, watering the infield to slow runners, all depending on the opponents’ skills.  Drenching the area in front of home might fall into this tradition if an opposing squad was known for hitting lots of choppers, but this was probably just the result of all the water on top of the tarp before game time.

And then there’s food.  It was not marked by variety or low prices.  Standard fare, with only one stand offering unusually topped dogs.  I opted for (after some lobbying by one of the workers) an Italian sausage with grilled peppers.  It was good, but I later reflected that (essentially) a dog and a beer cost $15 in a big league stadium while the same in Ogden was $5. Also, for the first time on this trip (I know some will find this hard to believe), I had an ice cream cone, and also took the plunge and bought a bag of peanuts (another $5!).

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History, M's, Major Leagues, Rants, Travel

Culture (and baseball)

No game today, so the focus is on the other aspect of the trip – travel (sort of).  I went to the Henry Ford Museum here in Detroit,  prepared, in my ignorance, to sniff haughtily at the industrialist’s self-aggrandizing tribute, but came away impressed.  Ford was a complicated man – not all of the complications are on display, but many of the interests are.  For example, he had quite a furniture collection.  It is not all there, but forms a link in the story told, going much further back and also forward to the present showing how various types of furniture evolved.  There are many agricultural machines, trains, airplanes and, of course, cars.  Most surprisingly, there is a fairly comprehensive exhibit devoted to the history of the civil rights struggle – both racial and gender.  Most interesting to me was a wide ranging presentation of the industrial revolution in its myriad aspects, including a variety of engines of all sizes and applications.  It is well worth visiting.

OK, you knew I couldn’t leave baseball alone.  Here are a couple of pictures of players wearing stirrups (Steve Cishek on the left and Francisco Lindor on the right).  They cover the calf but have just a loop under the instep.  These are fairly rare in the big leagues these days, but not so long ago, they were the only style used.  The origin isn’t entirely clear, but no doubt started because players originally wore knickerbockers that stopped at the knee. Some say that the outer socks were wool and “not healthy” so the white “sanitaries” worn beneath protected the players from the colored socks that often gave the teams their names (Red Stockings, Red Sox, White Sox, etc.).  More likely, it was the combination of the itchy wool and bleeding color that made the sanitaries necessary.  Nowadays, the overwhelming style is long pants that come to (and often below) the shoe tops so that no socks are visible at all.

It’s also time for an argument.  One of the questions in the new interactive display at the Hall of Fame is whether the National League should adopt the designated hitter like the American League did some forty years ago.  Purists say that having pitchers hit makes the National League more strategic, others argue that the DH provides more offense and that fans don’t want to watch pitchers embarrass themselves with their pathetic swings.

But the interesting subargument (to me) on this issue is whether a player who has spent most of his career as a DH should be admitted to the Hall of Fame.  None has to date, but this is David Ortiz’ last year playing and I see little chance that he won’t be voted in.  So why isn’t Edgar Martinez getting more votes (he’s never received more than 45%)?  His numbers are comparable to Ortiz’, but he played in Seattle and wasn’t as showy as Big Papi.  The argument was evident in Cooperstown.  I think Edgar goes in.

Oh yes, and the best baseball license plate so far (in Ohio) – BOO NYY.

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Eats, History, Major Leagues

Cleveland

What is it with Ohio?  Both their major league ball parks are named after (or more accurately, when one considers the the economics of the transaction) by insurance companies.  Cleveland’s is now known as Progressive Field, formerly (and with a semblance of human connection) Jacobs Field or “The Jake.”  The original name honored team owners Richard and David Jacobs, and the stadium bore that name until the naming rights were sold to Progressive Insurance.  Guess what name they picked!  It is part of a sports complex that includes Quicken Loans Arena (just rolls off the tongue, don’t it?) where the NBA Cavaliers play their home games.


This game was the second consecutive inter-league contest, but, this one being hosted by the American League team, the DH was used, whereas in Pittsburgh, the pitchers batted (how many of you picked that up in the last post where I mentioned that Liriano homered?).  It was also the only day game on my schedule.  The Washington Nationals and their ace, Stephen Strasburg, took on the Indians and it wasn’t really a contest.  Strasburg came into the game with a 13-1 record, and he dominated the Tribe.  He left after seven innings with a 4-0 lead.  The Nationals relievers managed to give up a run to spoil the shutout, but Strasburg’s win was secured.

Indians starter Carlos Carrasco is unusual in that he works from the stretch, even with none on base.  That is the practice of relievers, but not of starters.  Most starters use a fairly precise windup, and many think they can generate more velocity from the windup than from the stretch.  One need only watch a few of the flame-throwing relievers in the game today to put the lie to that myth.  The only pitcher in the Bigs using an old style windup today is Ross Ohlendorf, and you can see a clip of that here.

One feature at Progressive Park that I’ve seen nowhere else is these wild looking suites.  I puzzled over them a while and couldn’t decide what the view would be and whether I’d like it.


Now to the food.  Cleveland is far in the lead.  They have cheap dogs (though you have to pay extra for toppings like kraut).  They have crazy dogs – one topped with pickle relish, peanut butter and sriracha sauce; one with pulled pork, cheese, greens, onions, BBQ sauce and coffee!; and the killer – pimento mac and cheese, bacon and Fruit Loops.  Huh?  There was a good variety of Mexican food.  And believe it or not, there was one stand selling a variety of grilled cheese sandwiches.

 The one I fell victim to sold specialty dogs, including the one I chose – the Reuben dog.  Now the Reuben is one of my favorite sandwiches, if it is done well, so it would have been wrong for me to pass this one up.  It was a hot dog topped with corned beef, sauerkraut and thousand island dressing.  And boy was it tasty! The corned beef was cut in chunks rather than slices, and it wasn’t the best quality corned beef I’ve ever had, but the overall effect was pleasing.  Until I was nearly done.  That’s when I realized that, between the dog, the kraut and the corned beef, I had just consumed enough salt to last me a week (well, maybe a couple of days).  The rest of the day was spent drinking water.  Oh well.

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Eats, M's, Major Leagues, Oddity, Travel

Pittsburgh

I left the picturesque green of central New York to drive south and west for the beginning of the return trip.  We talk about Oregon being green, and the western third is, but rural upstate New York, in the summer at least, offers strong competition in that regard with its intense, almost jungle-like vegetation.  Its small towns add a touch of quaintness that makes a visit memorable.

Along the way, I found myself in Williamsport, Pa., home of the Little League World Series.  It isn’t going on now, but of course I had to take a picture of the stadium.


Pittsburgh’s stadium, PNC Park, like Cincinnati’s, sits on the banks of the Ohio River.  The view of the river from the park isn’t quite as good, but the River Walk, around the outfield, is lovely.  It looks over the river to downtown, which was illuminated by a sinking sun finally escaping a late afternoon cloud cover.  It will seat about 38,000 and though not full, there was a substantial crowd for this game.


I knew the Pirates would be playing the Mariners, but I hadn’t checked the lineup and thus didn’t realize that King Felix would be pitching for the M’s.  I was chagrined that I hadn’t brought my Felix towel with me and actually contemplated going back to the pickup to get it.  I needn’t have worried.  The anticipated pitching duel between him and Pirates starter Francisco Liriano did not materialize.  Liriano walked the first two batters he faced and through the second inning, had thrown more balls than strikes.  Felix was pitching home run derby, giving up one to Polanco (followed by Marte’s triple) for three runs in the first, and then was humiliated when he gave up another to pitcher Liriano in the second.  The M’s got a run in the second, followed by their own dingers by Gutierrez in the third and Seager in the fourth, when they chased Liriano and gave Felix a 7-4 lead that he and the bullpen held (though not without drama).


I also had the good fortune of a kindly ticket seller who found me a single seat on the 100 level, about 20 rows up from the M’s dugout, halfway between home and first. It really couln’t have been much better, especially for watching Felix.

The food at PNC was mostly standard fare and priced accordingly.  I chose a pierogi and pulled pork combo, mainly because it sounded unlikely, and it was.  The sandwich came with pre-packaged barbecue sauce, but the meat was tender.  The pierogis were doughy and uninspired.  There was also a decent variety of so-called “healthy” choices, more than I’ve seen elsewhere, and barbecue, reasonably priced but nonetheless avoided.  There was even a bargain “small” hot dog at $3.

One final note – one of the Pirates relievers is Arquimedes Caminero.  If he could team with Socrates Brito of the D’Backs and they could find a Plato somewhere, we’d have a philosophical crew the likes of which have never been seen in Major League Baseball.

The weather was cooler than it has been recently, so with the setting, the terrific seat and the M’s victory, it was a very successful start to the road trip home.

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Eats, History, Major Leagues

Hall of Fame

Once again, I ventured to Cooperstown to visit the Hall of Fame.  The actual hall where the plaques for each of the inductees is in a separate section of the building from the museum portion of the facility.  I wanted to see Griffey’s plaque and a new display on the second floor called “A Whole New Game.”

That new display features interactive video screens of two types: one has game highlights such as Joe Carter’s walk off homer in the 1993 World Series, Ken Griffey’s blast off the warehouse in Baltimore during the Home Run Derby, or Bo Jackson running up the outfield wall (which I had not seen and which is truly amazing – watch it here).  The other has questions for visitors to answer dealing with such topics as whether umpires should be eliminated by electronic systems for calling balls and strikes, whether the National League should adopt the designated hitter, whether the season should be cut back to 154 games with summaries of how others have answered.  It’s a good addition, and the content can be easily changed and updated.  But it doesn’t have an overall theme or unifying premise.

Which brings me to some observations made over my several recent visits to the Hall.  I am certainly not a museum expert, but it seems to me that there are several things that could be done to enhance its mission.  First, there should be traveling exhibits that go at least to the Major League cities so that a wider segment of the baseball world can see what the Hall is about.  After all, not everyone can come to Cooperstown.  Second, they should use interns to hang out at the Hall to talk with and record statements of visitors – people’s recollections of particular games, plays and players.  I’ve overheard many such conversations and they are almost as good as some of the displays.  Third, those displays should be less artifact based (e.g., here is Ted Williams’ bat or Ty Cobb’s cleats) and more interactive.  They could, for example, do a 3-D simulation of pitches from the umpire’s perspective to allow the visitor to call balls and strikes.  Or set up a game situation for you to decide, as a manager, whether to use a pinch hitter, call for a bunt, or send the runner.  Artifacts (not the real ones) could “come to life” by having different weight or length bats for visitors to hold.  Others could come up with many more ways to make the Hall more experiential.

But enough of that.  A couple of my favorites: This display shows Ted Williams strike zone with different colored baseballs, each with a batting average on it, showing what his average was when the pitch was at a particular location in the zone.  It is a testament to his prowess as a hitter.

This one is a quote from Hank Aaron that gets me every time.

Another quote about Aaron that captures something of the fever of baseball fans: Aaron’s teammate Eddie Matthews said “I don’t know when Hank Aaron will break Ruth’s record [715 home runs] but I can tell you one thing – ten years from the day he hits it three million people will say they were there.”

If you visit Cooperstown, and you should if you care anything about baseball, eat at the Doubleday Cafe, right on Main Street.  We’ve had several meals there and the food is consistently good, and is endorsed by locals we’ve asked.

Finally, Ken Griffey’s new plaque.

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History, M's, Major Leagues

Ichiro

Ichiro Suzuki is one of my favorite ball players ever.  After nine pro seasons in Japan, he came to the Mariners and, in his first year there, was both AL Rookie of the Year and AL MVP.  He got more than 200 hits in each of his first 10 years in the Majors.  He is now just four hits short of the magic 3000 hit mark in his major league career, a mark surpassed by only 29 others in the history of the game.

One of my partners, Andy McStay, sent me an article that I commend to you.  In it, Tommy Tomlinson does a great job of showing how Ichiro has approached the game in a systematic, analytical way that has enabled him to achieve milestones few others have reached.  You can read it here and if you like baseball, I recommend that you do so.

In addition, Ichiro has already, if you count his hits from Japan, passed the 4256 total career hits notched by Pete Rose, the major league record holder.  Some say it isn’t right to count Ichiro’s Japanese hits, and that may be right.  But if you consider that Ichiro got 1278 hits in Japan in nine years, where they played a 130 game schedule (vs. the 162 game schedule in the Majors) or about 1.1 hits per scheduled game, then translate that to a theoretical nine years in the Majors and he would have 177 hits per year for nine additional years or an additional total of 1589.  And that ignores the fact that he at a much higher rate when he did get to the Majors.  That calculation gives you a glimpse of the talent of the man as a hitter.

There are many stories about Ichiro, some of them in the article I referenced.  One I experienced happened in a game the Mariners played against the Red Sox in Seattle.  It was the only time I’ve had seats in the top level at Safeco, and they were on an extension of the third base line behind home plate, giving me an excellent view of this play.  Ichiro was batting with two outs and two strikes.  Mike Cameron was on third, and the two of them obviously had a signal that triggered the play.  In a situation that demanded, by both tradition and baseball conventional wisdom, that Ichiro should have been swinging for a single (or better) he instead, as Cameron broke for home, laid down a perfect bunt which he beat out for a single and earned a brilliant RBI.  It was a play I’ll never forget.

Unless the Baseball Writers wise up and elect Edgar Martinez to the Hall of Fame, Ichiro will be the next Mariner to get in.

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