Eats, Minor Leagues

Fire Frogs v. Tarpons

Back to the Florida State League (Advanced Single A) for a contest between the hometown Florida Fire Frogs (Atlanta Braves affiliate) and the Tampa Tarpons (NY Yankees affiliate) in Kissimmee at Osceola County Stadium, the former spring training park of the Houston Astros, and the smallest park in the FSL.

The Fire Frogs apparently decided to use Florida as their geographic designation rather than Kissimmee in hopes of attracting a wider following in the greater Orlando area. I think Kissimmee sounds cooler than Florida though.

The frog part came from a local denizen called the coqui, an amphibian that originated in Puerto Rico. There are allegedly many people of Puerto Rican descent in the Orlando area. They (the frogs) are not red, however, or even orange. I’m not sure about the people.

So it seems that the fire part was just made up – helped with the alliteration.

There were rain showers, sometimes heavy through the afternoon and even the occasional dark cloud during the game, but never a need to take cover.

Anyway, the Frogs, with their colorful and unexplained (at least that I heard) jerseys played a fast clean game that lasted just over two hours and won it with their three run rally in the third. It was another shut out, which is a bit surprising at this level.

The bull pens at the field were in foul territory, just beyond first and third. There aren’t many fields like that and when a reliever is warming up, there has to be a lookout with a glove facing the infield to protect him and especially the catcher.

I like this picture of the guys draped on the dugout fence. There’s a lot of waiting in baseball.

The eats were standard, though my smoked sausage was pretty good. Regrettably, there was no sauerkraut to go with it.

Eats, History, M's, Major Leagues

Rays v. Blue Jays

The first issue here is why this team is called the Tampa Bay Rays. The ballpark, Tropicana Field, aka “The Trop,” is located in St. Petersburg, which is not Tampa. Yes, the nearby water is Tampa Bay, but still, seems like St. Pete got the short end of the stick.

But on closer inspection, maybe not. The Trop is the only non-retractable dome in the Bigs and, with the exception of the old Seattle Kingdome, is the worst big league ballpark in creation. As you can see from this panorama, there isn’t a hint of the outdoors once you enter. It feels like a convention hall. Maybe St. Pete is smart to keep its name out of it.

Take another look, especially at the white roof. Following a fly ball with that background and the lights requires special powers, which apparently not all the Rays have, as evidenced by the high pop fly hit by a Toronto batter in the ninth that had everyone on the Rays from the third baseman to the right fielder calling for it. It dropped in front of the third baseman for a double (credit the hustling Blue Jay). OK, not really a double – scored as an error – and, to be fair, maybe the Rays could see the ball, but it hit part of the roof structure and ricocheted. Where else does that happen?!

The Jumbotron, such as it is, is partially obstructed by structural features. The separate display of batter stats is behind a walkway, so you have to guess at some of the numbers depending on how many fans are headed to the restrooms.

And another thing. Never have I seen the grounds crew dragging the infield “grass” as they did here. I guess it is important to get that artificial turf headed the right direction before the game starts. Only the Trop and Rogers Centre in Toronto still have artificial turf, so these two teams were on equal footing (get it?).

Now to the game. Blue Jays lead off man, Curtis Granderson, one of my favorite players, got them off to a good start with a double to center. Two sac flies later and he’d scored the first run. When the Rays changed pitchers to start the third, lefty Granderson was replaced by a righty to face the new left-handed pitcher.

Three former Mariners played in the game, two for the Jays: journeyman first baseman/DH Kendrys Morales and pitcher J. A. Happ. Happ didn’t have his good stuff (just like in Seattle) and took the loss with a ball/strike ratio close to 50/50. Morales made an error on what should have been a double play to allow a run.

The Rays ex-M’s fortunes were better, with Chris Miller belting a two run homer in the 8th to put the game away at 6-2.

I’ve been puzzling for a while over the custom, after a strikeout, of the catcher throwing the ball “around the horn” before getting it back to the pitcher. Most often, it goes from catcher to third to short to second and back to third, who throws it to the pitcher. Occasionally the catcher will go the other way to first, second, short and third. It is always the third baseman to delivers it back to the pitcher. Some say this got started as a way for players to demonstrate their ball handling skills. It just seems to be a strange artifact in today’s game.

And then there was food. The Trop features the usual variety at the usual big league prices. There was one variation – a stand that featured Indian style script and one dish called “chicken tikka,” which I took to be the Indian staple, though I didn’t try it. I also didn’t see any obviously Indian fans. I should have had the tikka, because the mac and cheese I did have was terrible. All (old) mac and very little cheese. Saved only by some hot sauce and dill relish from the condiment table.

Eats, Minor Leagues

Bradenton v. Dunedin

OK Folks, I located the Holy Grail. More on that in a bit.

Just a short drive up the Gulf Coast from Port Charlotte is Bradenton, home of the Florida State League (Advanced Single A) Bradenton Marauders. They play their home games in the spring training park of the Pittsburgh Pirates, with whom they are affiliated.

That field is called LECOM Park and you’d be hard pressed to figure out where the name came from unless you saw this sign in the outfield.

So what does the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine have to do with minor league baseball in Florida? Turns out that august institution bought the naming rights and it has campuses in Pennsylvania and right here in Bradenton. Still, a connection with baseball? Are they hoping some of the players will enroll during the off season or come to them for treatment of their baseball injuries? Who knows?

It is, nonetheless, an absolutely beautiful park, just blocks from downtown Bradenton. It has a seating capacity of 8,500, though there were only about 500 on hand for this game. The field is meticulously groomed, and, in all respects, this was an ideal night for baseball (88 degrees at game time, light breezes, no clouds).

The Marauders took on the Dunedin Blue Jays in what turned out to be a pitchers duel. Both teams played well (though the Jays did have two errors, one of which cost a run), and the pitchers were outstanding. One mistake by the Dunedin pitcher cost them a two-run homer, and that was all the offense either team could muster. One consequence of all this was that it was a very fast game, lasting just 1:53.

For the first time that I can recall at a minor league park, the grounds crew came out to sweep the field and replace the bases midway through the game.

Another phenomenon I haven’t seen at any level is uniformity of uniforms – well, socks, really. All of the Marauders wore knee-high black socks – not stirrups with sanitaries.

Now for the Holy Grail. In keeping with my usual routine, I walked the perimeter of the park before the game. Only one concession stand was open with the usual offerings at reasonable prices. I wasn’t in the mood for a dog or a brat, so I kept walking toward the outfield, where there is a deck from right to center field and bleachers in left. In center, there was another stand with different items for sale, and that’s where I found it.

Yes indeed, GATOR BITES!!! Genuine alligator meat, cooked to order and a generous portion at that. I expected rubber but instead got tender and tasty chunks of truly delicious reptile, complemented with a side of fries. Appropriate for the area and distinctive in the world of baseball. Oh, and did I mention, one dollar draft beer?! Baseball Nirvana.

Eats, Minor Leagues, Outfield Ads, Travel

Stone Crabs v. Mets

I left Miami and headed west, driving and hiking through the Everglades. That national park is different from any other I’ve seen in that it is not really, in the strict sense of the word, a tourist destination. Yes, tourists do visit, but it lacks the sort of memorable sights that most national parks feature. It is really more of an adventure destination – I doubt you’ll see much until you get further into the swamp by way of a canoe or kayak. I suspect my experience was typical for the casual visitor – egrets everywhere, but nary a gator in sight.

I stopped in Port Charlotte to see a minor league game. This part of Florida has two leagues – the Gulf Coast League (rookies, not playing yet) and the Florida State League – called Advanced A.

The home team Charlotte Stone Crabs are affiliated the Tampa Bay Rays and play their games the Rays’ spring training park, called the Charlotte Sports Park. It is fairly spacious by minor league standards and very well groomed.

On this night, there was a huge crowd of about 100 – OK maybe 200. Average age probably somewhere north of 65 (this is Florida after all!).

Speaking of that, the outfield ads contained more for health care and senior services than usual. Given the small size (including small text) of some of them and their distance from the seats, it’s hard to see that they’re terribly effective. The only one that stood out enough to qualify for the outfield ads category was this one – what the heck is a ‘bath fitter?”

The Crabs started strong against the St. Lucie Mets with three runs in the first and they didn’t let up. This laugher ended at 13-3 for the Crabs. Quite a contrast to the Marlins – Phillies contest. The Crabs feature brothers Nate and Josh Lowe, making it the first time I can remember seeing brothers on the same team.

The Stone Crabs mascot is like most, though there weren’t enough kids in the crowd to afford him the opportunity for the usual mascot shtick. You will see that his only distinctive feature is the claws.

The screens, as in most parks now, extend beyond the dugouts. That creates a problem for yours truly because it’s hard to get good pics through the screen. See the contrasting pics below. Even if I weren’t doing that, the screening makes it harder to follow the flight of the batted ball. What price safety?

It was interesting that what was a 20 second clock last year is now down to 15 seconds. That’s the time allowed the pitcher to deliver the next pitch. Again, I saw no enforcement, but the game did move along fairly quickly.

There was one puzzling enforcement incident. With a runner on first, the umpire suddenly motioned him to third. No explanation was given and I couldn’t figure it out – a double balk, maybe?

The eats were very limited, though the prices were reasonable for a minor league park. No concessionaire was going to retire on this night’s receipts. I did have a dog with cooked chopped onions, which was a new one on me, but also fairly tasteless.

Eats, Major Leagues, Oddity, Travel

Marlins v. Phillies

In my quest to visit all 30 major league ballparks, I had originally planned to get the two in Florida on my summer road trip. But after spending some time with the maps, it became clear that Miami was just too far to go in the time allotted. So I looked at schedules and concluded that May (not being part of hurricane season) afforded the best opportunity to cover the two in the Sunshine State.

I began the trip by flying to Key West for no good reason. Oh, I had reasons (1. As a kid I had a pen pal there [remember snail mail?]; 2. It’s the southernmost point of the continental U.S.; 3. I was curious), but none were sufficient. Key West is simply kitsch – not as concentrated as say, Wall Drug, but there is little reason for the town’s existence other than parting tourists from their dollars. Not a lot of the charm or architectural preservation you’d expect in a sleepy tropical town.

So I left and drove though the Keys to Miami. I’ve been here many times before and must say it is not one of my favorite cities, but it does have a new ballpark, so that makes it worthy of a visit.

Contrary to the modern trend, it does not bear the name of a sponsor. It is simply Marlins Park. Nor is it retro. Rather, it is futuristic, the outside resembling a sleek white spaceship more than the traditional ivy-covered brick ballpark. In fact, there isn’t one brick in sight. It was built in 2012 on the site of the old Orange Bowl and is one of the smallest parks in the Bigs.

It has a retractable roof and huge sliding windows, so rainouts, which plagued the Marlins at their old park, are non-existent. On this night, the windows were open till just before game time and then closed. The grass, however, is natural (to the extent any big league stadium grass is natural!) and perfectly groomed. In keeping with the latest trend, the protective screens extend beyond the dugouts and the Jumbotron is trapezoidal. The closed in nature of the park made the extra-loud relentless music of the p.a. system especially oppressive.

Speaking of the scoreboard, notice the new feature.

This is the result of the new rule adopted by MLB with the goal of speeding the pace of play and making games shorter. It seemed to have that effect in this game.

Another feature not seen in other parks (thank goodness!) – the monstrosity in left center which comes to life when the Marlins hit a home run. Just to be sure their ballpark is the most unusual, the Marlins built into the wall right behind home plate not one but two large aquariums (made of bulletproof glass – and, apologies – I couldn’t get a picture). I guess having fish in the wall has something to do with the name of their team. Huh?

This game didn’t hold a lot of promise. So far, the Marlins this year have simply been bad. The Phillies, by contrast, under their new manager, Gabe Kapler, are over .500 and seem to be resurgent. This pattern held through five innings as the Phils scored one and held the Marlins hitless (indeed, runnerless) through five.

In the sixth, the Marlins got a little wink from God in the form of a bloop to right that none of the three converging Phils could reach that resulted in a double with no outs. So of course, the next batter bunted (badly) and the runner on second was nailed in a rundown. Hard to say that was a baserunning error, since the whole point was to get to third making a run possible on a hit or sacrifice fly. More like a batting error.

Then Lewis Brinson gets a single, so there’s hope. But Phils pitcher Zach Eflin, no doubt under instructions from the bench, made several attempts to pick Brinson off first. As these pictures show, the initial attempts were unsuccessful, but on the last, which was called safe, a challenge overturned the call.

This, while pinch hitter Justin Bour was at the plate, just hoping to move the runner along. Once there was no runner, he did the only thing he could – launched one out of the park to even the score.

No further action till the 10th, when the Phils loaded the sacks but couldn’t score. In the bottom half, the first two Marlins made outs, then Cameron Maybin hit a stand up triple to deep center – no something you see too often. After an intentional walk, another pinch hitter, Yadiel Rivera, got his first ever walk off hit to win the game.

So, a night of very interesting baseball in front of the smallest big league crowd I can remember (officially almost 13,000, but the after-game announcement said 5,000 – I’d be surprised if it was that big).

Oh yes, the food. In a city as cosmopolitan and diverse as Miami, you’d expect a plethora of choices. Not to be. Everything seemed standardized and somehow sterile. Nothing distinctive except for one small stand offering pincho, a sort of kebab. And the prices were more than major league high.

And another thing, during the game, there was a little piece on the Jumbotron featuring Marlins players promoting “Sandlot Day” with quotes from the eponymous movie (a baseball must-see). “You’re killin’ me Smalls.”