Wilsall, Montana

Never heard of it?  Neither had I till the lack of any baseball between Sioux Falls and Portland caused me to look for alternative diversions.  Lo and behold, Wilsall is the site of an annual rodeo, which just happened to coincide with my arrival in Livingston (gateway to Yellowstone – from the north).  So of course I had to attend.

The rodeo grounds covered more area than the rest of the town, but the setting was spectacular, with the snow-covered mountains in the background and the green hills leading down to the Yellowstone River.

I arrived just a few minutes late and the place was packed.  I had to park about three blocks away and from the area I covered, my vehicle was the only one from out of state.  Lots of families and it seemed like everyone knew each other.

But the action is the story.  The calves won the calf-roping contest, with only two out of about ten actually being lassoed.  The most exciting event was the women’s barrel racing, in which the horse and rider must circle three barrels, then race to the finish line, the winner being the one with the lowest time.

I loved watching the cutting horses and their riders who coaxed the bucking broncs, the skittish calves and even the horses whose riders jumped off to rassle a calf to the ground or tie it up after lassoing it.  Those horses and riders were as one, knowing just what to do and where to go.

A piece of America that we don’t see in the city.

Eats, Minor Leagues

Sioux Falls, South Dakota

With a name like the Canaries, you just have to go see them.  Actually, I did see the Canaries in Wichita last year, but of course that was not on their home turf.  The Canaries play at Sioux Falls Stadium, better known as the Bird Cage, and play in the American Independent League, which is not affiliated with major-league baseball.

Unlike the Wichita stadium, the Bird Cage has natural turf.  In this game, the Birds, as they are affectionately called, faced the Gary South Shore Railcats, looking for a sweep of a four game series.  Unfortunately, they were a bit short-sighted, losing 6-5 in 11 innings.

There wasn’t much about the game, the stadium or anything else to set this game apart from others.  Both starting pitchers were lefties, throwing in the mid-80’s.  The Birds all wore long pants, the Railcats all wore high pants, some even with stirrups.

A ways south of Sioux Falls, there was a billboard that read “Eat steaks, wear furs, keep your guns.  The American Way”.  (You can’t make this up!). So naturally, when I got to the ball park, since they weren’t serving steak, I had to break with baseball tradition and have a burger, the only beef product available.  Actually, a cheeseburger.  The burger itself was apparently cooked sometime last week and had been residing on a shelf ever since.  It was topped with a slice of rubber cheese taken directly from the fridge and slapped into a (at least) day-old bun.  It was, quite simply, terrible.  The worst ballpark food I’ve ever had.  The only saving grace was that they had my favorite Leinenkugel Summer Shandy, so there was something pleasant to wash it down with.

This may be my last baseball post of this trip, since there is no professional baseball scheduled anywhere along my route to PDX. I’ll look for some amateur action or a rodeo or something, but don’t hold your breath.

Eats, Minor Leagues, Oddity, Travel

Davenport, Iowa

We took a fairly easy drive (after getting out of St. Louis) north through the cornfields of Illinois, mostly on back roads. It is remarkable in such a populous state how few folks you see in its extreme western part.
Our destination was Davenport, Iowa where the Quad Cities River Bandits were scheduled to play in a Single A Midwestern League game against the Cedar Rapids Kernels. The Bandits are an affiliate of the Astros and the Kernels of the Twins.
When we arrived in town, we went directly to the stadium to buy our tickets and were told that there were none for sale. My jaw dropped and the clerk quickly explained that they had all been purchased by the Modern Woodmen, an insurance company whose headquarters are directly across the Mississippi River from the stadium and after which the stadium is named. The clerk said that the tickets would be given away free an hour before game time.
We were a little late for that and the parking lot was filling up fast. We stood in the ticket line only to be told to go to the gate where we would get them. The two ticket takers insisted they didn’t have tickets, but we had to and that we had to go back to the ticket window, and only after a couple of rounds of fruitless explanation that we were denied tickets there did a young lady step up (she’d been no more than five feet away during the exchange) to offer us tickets. Goofy!
The Modern Woodmen Park enjoys perhaps the most spectacular setting for a ballpark that I’ve ever seen, positioned as it is at the north end of the Centennial Bridge, right on the banks of the Mississippi. We enjoyed watching the pelicans fly up and down the river. It also had the unusual feature of a permanent ferris wheel in left field.

The Quad Cities include Bettendorf and Davenport in Iowa and Rock Island and Moline in Illinois, and there’s a fairly long history of minor league baseball in the area.
Unfortunately, a very typical Midwestern shower arrived just as the game was about to start, so it was delayed by an hour. That, coupled with the need to make tracks tomorrow and the River Bandits 5-0 lead in the fifth caused us to leave after the game was official (five innings).
We did see one player who probably won’t be with the Bandits for long. A Cuban named Yordan Alvarez was big, had an easy swing and had three hits, including a long home run, by the time we left. In style and movement, he reminded me of the young Vladimir Guerrero, but with greater plate discipline and less wasted motion.  Keep an eye out for him.
And finally, the eats. The Bandit Dog, better described as a chili cheese dog with onions, seemed the most promising, but about the only thing it is likely to deliver is late night heartburn.

Eats, Major Leagues, Travel

St. Louis vs. Milwaukee

Our trip to St. Louis last year ended in frustration as we sat, waiting patiently, watching radar images on the Jumbotron that seemed to portray an impending deluge, yet found no confirmation in the sky over Busch Stadium.  In the end, the radar prevailed and the game was rained out.  So, of course, we had to come back.

To get there, we drove through rural western Tennessee, through a bit of Kentucky and into Illinois at Cairo.  It is ironic that I’ve been to Cairo, Egypt (pronounced “kigh row”) many times but never to Cairo, Illinois (pronounced “kay row”).  I was shocked.  In all my travels around this country, I have never seen a town so depressed.  It is seemingly one bankruptcy short of a ghost town.  At least two thirds of the businesses were boarded up and there was just nothing going on.

Busch Stadium, on the other hand, was bustling.  When we checked into our hotel, we learned that the Cards and Brewers were playing a double header (making up a prior rainout), so there was a lot of activity around the stadium when we bought our tickets.  This year, the skies were clear and the weather warm.

We also made a return visit to Pappy’s Smokehouse, a highly regarded BBQ place west of downtown.  We enjoyed it last year, but tried to go to Bogart’s, only to learn that is open just for lunch four days a week.  Go figure.  In any event, we got one full side of ribs and split it, which was more than enough for the two of us.  The ribs were superb, the sides (slaw and potato salad) adequate though not memorable, but the meal was well worth it (14 very meaty ribs for $25).

The Cards won the first game and we speculated whether the veterans would have played that game or been saved for the night game.  I would have played the old guys in the (marginally) cooler evening game, but Manager Metheny did the opposite.  Several of the younger players wore these fancy socks.

 The Cards took an early lead, the Brewers caught up and then went ahead, the Cards caught them, but lost out in the end.  Despite that, it was a good game and now Busch Stadium is authentically in the book.

Eats, Minor Leagues, Rants

Jackson, Tennessee

This game rounds out the survey of the four major levels of professional baseball, from Single A through the majors, because we (I was joined by brother Tom) saw the Jackson Generals (Arizona Diamondbacks affiliate) hosting the Tennessee Smokies (Cubs affiliate) in a Double AA Southern League game.  That raises a question I’ve been pondering – when written, is it properly Triple AAA or Triple A?  The former seems redundant, but I think that’s the way I’ve always seen it.

The AAA game in Louisville seemed of a piece with major league play.  The Eastlake Single A teams were young and eager and colt-like.  This Double AA game was closer to AAA than to Single A in the bearing of the players and the apparent knowledge of the game.

Anyway, the Generals play in The Ballpark at Jackson, a tidy little field right next to I-40 and a part of a large sports complex.  We arrived at 5 for a 6:05 start (have to check out the food, you know) and we were the first fans there!  The total attendance for the evening was well under 200.

The very first thing we noticed on entering the park was the extremely loud and annoying music.  It did not stop.  It played as the announcer named the upcoming batter.  It played between innings, it played all the time.  I couldn’t hear Tom talk and he was sitting right next to me.  It made me crazy!

Okay, back to the park and baseball.  The second thing unusual about the park is that it has the longest screens I’ve ever seen – they extend to about the halfway mark between third and the outfield wall as you can sorta see in this picture.

The third thing is fans – no, not the folks in the seats but these fans, which were placed throughout the stands, but none were pointed at us.  It was hot and I wish they had been.

The fourth thing is the scoreboard, of which there was only one, and it was on the Jumbotron in right field, facing west, so it could not be read with the sun beating on it.  That meant we had to pay attention (I guess we could have kept score the old fashioned way, but we weren’t prepared for that).

The fifth thing was being carded when I ordered a beer and then having to wear a bracelet (hospital style) for the rest of the evening in case I wanted another beer.  Weird. 

Finally, to the food.  Yes I have a picture, though it isn’t very helpful.  It is a catfish po’ boy, which might have seemed appropriate in Louisiana but a bit out of place in Tennessee.  We also had what was claimed to be authentic Tennessee barbecue pulled pork sandwich. The pulled pork wasn’t bad but it needed more sauce, and the po’ boy was also adequate but probably not memorable.

Actually, that wasn’t really the last thing.  The last and best thing, never seen anywhere else in the professional baseball world – wait for it – . . . HAMMOCKS!!!

Oh, and the game wasn’t half bad either.  The lead went back and forth until the Generals got their lead off man on in the bottom of the ninth, he was balked to second and scored on a walk off double.  So on the whole, a very successful evening.

Eats, Minor Leagues, Rants


The Ohio River must host more baseball stadiums than any waterway in the country.  Perhaps it just seems that way because I’ve seen several in the past year.  Louisville Slugger Stadium is a lovely “retro” style park with a seating capacity of 13,000 and plays home to the Louisville Bats, the AAA affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds, just up the river.  The Bats were at home against another storied franchise, the Toledo Mud Hens of the Detroit Tigers organization.

But before I got to the ballpark, I had to visit the Louisville Slugger Factory and Museum.  It is this factory that gives Louisville its special place in baseball culture.  For much of the history of the game, Hillerich & Bradsby, the company that manufactures the bats, was the dominant player in the field (yes, pun intended).  They now face more competition, but still control about 60% of the market.  The tour was interesting, showing how bats used to be made by hand (with a lathe, of course) and how they are now made by computerized machines that can turn out a customized bat for a major leaguer in 45 seconds.

I felt stupid when I saw the Bats mascot because it hadn’t dawned on me that they would use the other common meaning for the word and have a flying bat as a mascot.  I should also note that this is the first mascot I’ve seen actually playing catch with a mitt and baseball.

What’s with the ceremonial first pitch[es]?  Last game and this one, they had about 5 first pitches.  Hasn’t anyone pointed out that after the first one, there cannot be another first???  This being the south, they had to have young ladies in fancy dresses as a part of the ceremony.

Once again, I got to see a former Mariner, Brendan Ryan, this one playing shortstop for the Mud Hens.  He’s generally a good defensive player (though he made one error here), but he still can’t hit a lick.  His average is below the Mendoza line – in AAA!  Nevertheless, the Mud Hens batted around in the first inning, scoring five runs, and never looked back, winning easily 7-2.

Once again, the 20 second clock was in evidence, which requires the pitcher to deliver the next pitch within 20 seconds of receiving the ball on the mound.  It was never enforced by the umpires, but all the pitchers seemed to comply.  The game lasted a mere 2.5 hours, so maybe the Bigs should consider it.

Finally, eats.  The prices here were very reasonable by ballpark standards.  A regular dog costs $3.75 and there are several options under $6.  There were the usual choices on burgers, pizza and the like, but quite a good variety of beer.  I had my new favorite, Leinenkugel Summer Shandy with a Grand Slam Dog.  I was going to be good but the devil appeared in pig’s clothing and made me eat that half pound wonder.  Ahh, life-giving pig fat!

Eats, Minor Leagues, Oddity, Outfield Ads

Eastlake, Ohio

Classic Park in Eastlake, Ohio is quite large for a single A team, and after attending a game there, it is obvious that the Lake County Captains, who play in that park, enjoy more support from their parent team, the nearby Cleveland Indians, than most other single A teams. It has a seating capacity of nearly 7,300 and a natural grass field. Very nice.
Given the name of the team, it is not surprising that the park bears a nautical theme. The suites are dubbed the “Officers Club” and the toilets are on the Poop Deck. I could go on, but you get the idea.
To add to the ambience (this was “Heros Weekend”), the team wore jerseys covered in pictures of folks from the area who have served or are serving in the military. From even a short distance, they looked like camouflage outfits.

Then, to top it off, they had two “parades” before the game started. The first was graduates of a special reading program – there were three little kids. But the real attraction was about 60 motorcycles, many bearing hefty operators wearing leather vests, who rode around the warning track, parked in front of the dugouts and behind home plate, and. milled around until leaving just before the game started. Not sure how bikers and soldiers (and readers!) end up in the same show, but there you go.

On this very pleasant evening, the Captains hosted the Bowling Green Hot Rods, but it wasn’t much of a contest. The Captains’ hitting and defense were both superior, leading to a lopsided victory.
There was a good variety of food on offer at quite reasonable prices. A regular hot dog was $3.50 and my bratwurst (with onions and peppers) was just $6. Plus, they not only had the usual condiments, but some specialty mustards and, believe it or not, my favorite – Frank’s hot sauce.
In the fourth inning, a sharply hit foul ball found a not sufficiently alert fan and she was carried out on a stretcher after about a 20 minute game delay. A reminder of the dangers of the game.
Finally, I am back in the minors and thus have increased the chances of some strange outfield ads. This one struck me, given the not-too-distant history of the game, as wildly inappropriate. What sort of drugs? Approved by MLB? Really?