Eats, Minor Leagues, Rants

River Cats vs. Isotopes

As in Sacramento vs. Albuquerque, both in the AAA Pacific Coast League, the former affiliated with the Giants and the latter with the Rockies. Another relatively cool night in the Central Valley (headed for a much more typical 100 by week’s end), 81 degrees at game time. The Isotopes are already eliminated from the playoffs, and the River Cats are sitting in first in their division.

AAA is interesting because it is the highest level of the minors, the last stop for young stars on the rise before they make the Show (some even skip AAA and go up from AA) and often populated with big leaguers that get sent down for rehab or because they hit a rough patch in the Show.

The Cats play their home games at Raley Field on the banks of the Sacramento River in West Sacramento. Unlike a lot of minor league parks, it is not named for some dear departed ball player but for the supermarket chain that bought the naming rights. The disease is seeping to ever lower levels! The stadium has a seating capacity of 14,000, which certainly outdoes the 4,000 or so at the most recent Advanced A games I’ve seen and this crowd didn’t begin to tax that capacity. It is a pretty stadium and to my surprise, the luxury boxes on the upper level seemed to be almost fully occupied.

As you can see, there is a fancy Jumbotron and another couple of electronic scoreboards that are easy for geezers like me to read. The only problem was that they went out in the bottom of the first, came back briefly an inning later, and then were in and (partially) out at intervals for the rest of the game.

Unlike the Advanced A games, here (maybe because both teams are affiliated with National League clubs), the pitchers hit for themselves. Chris Rusin, the Isotopes pitcher – who, by the way, was throwing mostly junk, not breaking 90 – drove in two runs with a clean single his first time up, but later, despite several years with the Cubs and Rockies, couldn’t manage in three attempts to lay down a bunt. Any National League pitcher should be able to bunt at any time in any count. But who cares what I think?!

This guy started out with the crew dragging the infield after the 6th inning, but ended up doing a dance and finally jumped up on the wall to entertain the crowd. The minor leagues are really about entertainment rather than baseball, though at the AAA level, there aren’t as many between-inning gimmicks as at the lower levels.

Finally, to the food. There was a pretty wide variety of sandwiches along with the usual fare. The one that caught my eye, that I’ve never seen in another park – not even at the New Orleans Baby Cakes last year – was a muffuletta sandwich. I was skeptical, so I asked the servers if it was authentic and if anyone was from N.O. who could vouch for it. One kid said he was from N.O. but claimed he’d never had a muffuletta sandwich. So I tried it. It was bad. There was a tiny container of muffuletta that was good for about a third of the sandwich, and I had to be satisfied with mustard for the remainder. A cruel hoax. Oh yes, and the prices were definitely big league.

What I said about standings at the beginning didn’t really matter because the Isotopes had the upper hand throughout and won 4-1.

So that’s it for the California Dreamin’ tour folks. I’ve enjoyed it immensely and just hope I managed to send some of the fun your way.

Eats, Minor Leagues, Rants

Nuts vs. Jethawks

That’s the Modesto Nuts and the Lancaster Jethawks, two more teams in the California League, Advanced A. The Nuts are in the Mariners organization and the Jethawks in the Rockies system. I have no idea what a Jethawk is but according to Wikipedia, their name comes from Lancaster’s association with the aerospace industry. The Nuts are presumably named for the almonds (and maybe some other nuts) grown around Modesto.

The Nuts play their home games at John Thurman Field, opened in 1955 and renovated in 1997. It’s a tidy place with lots of bathrooms and plenty of general admission seating. The problem, as you can see, is that the third base side is in full sun till about 8 p.m. and in Modesto, that’s generally not pleasant. This game started at an unseasonably cool 87 degrees, but even with that moderate temperature (for Modesto) full sun is still too much.

When I arrived, there was a fairly loud symphony of chirping – turned out that there were about a zillion pre-pubescent girls waiting to get on to the field to demonstrate their cheerleading skills. I didn’t know cheerleading played any part in baseball outside of Japan, but sure enough, the hordes occupied foul territory before the game began to demonstrate their skills. Here they are:

Then, to my dismay, they invaded the first base grandstands where I was sitting and, having been stoked by their parents’ lax fiscal discipline into a high state of sugar frenzy, continued their jumping and shouting and generally chaotic behavior through the first few innings till the sugar wore off. By the fifth inning (after the girls and their parents had departed) the crowd was down to a reasonable 100 or so.

As we all know, the Mariners are languishing in last place in the AL West and, watching this farm team of theirs, it doesn’t look like it’s going to get better any time soon, at least not if they’re counting on guys from the minors to bail them out. First, their roster reads like a prep school yearbook. Some sample first names: Collin, Austin, Ian, Keegan, Connor . . . you get the idea. Also, the Nuts had as many starters hitting at or under the Mendoza line as the Jethawks had hitting over .300.

Once again, there was no sign on the field showing its name – just the team name behind home and on the Jumbotron. And a footnote – there was no dirt path from the dugout to the batters box, so I guess in isn’t a Cal League thing.

Some of the wannabe cheerleaders on the Jumbotron

There was a wide variety of sandwiches on offer, far more than customary in the minors, and the prices were almost, but not quite, big league. Because of the home team’s name, and because there is a limit to how many hot dogs an old man can eat, I settled for a bag of peanuts and a beer (though I doubt many peanuts are grown around here). All in all, it was a pleasant evening of baseball (after the cheerleaders left), but the Nuts got shelled (sorry, blame Jack Faust – it was his line) 6-4.

Eats, Minor Leagues, Oddity

Giants vs. 66’ers

That’s the San Jose Giants vs. the Inland Empire 66’ers (San Bernardino), both of the California League, Advanced A. You may recall the 66’ers from the first game of the California Dreamin’ tour when they played the Stockton Ports and shut them out 7-0.

But this game was at the Giants home, Excite Park, otherwise known as San Jose Municipal Stadium. It’s old, but it has been kept up to date and all told, is quite a nice park. It has a video Jumbotron and radar pitch speed readings, both of which are rare at that level of the minors. Lots of reasonably comfortable general admission seats, too. And once again, though I didn’t bother to photograph it, there was the dirt path from dugout to batters box. Must be a Cal League thing.

The mustache is fake

Two interesting roster notes. First, Johnny Cueto of the parent club San Francisco Giants, is on the San Jose roster for his rehab after Tommy John surgery last season. He pitched a bit for the S.J. Giants two games ago. On the other side is the son of one of my all-time favorite players, Torii Hunter. I didn’t mention him before because he didn’t play in the Stockton game. Junior looks like his dad and may even have some of his skills. And he’s in the Angels organization, where his dad spent a few good years. He went 2-4 in this game and played well. Here he is.

I also have to note another literary name, this one with the S.J. Giants: Hamlet Marte. He joins such luminaries as Arquimedes Caminero and Socrates Brito in the baseball world.

There was some sort of gimmick between nearly every inning, including having a kid toss toilet rolls into a toilet and ball players throwing baseballs in an attempt to break the headlights of an auto parts company van (both succeeded).

There was a bigger variety of food options here than I’ve seen in any minor league park. It didn’t hurt that it was Italian Night, with several specialty (presumably temporary) Italian food stands, and the greatest variety was in the large table seating area along the left field line. There was a good crowd, with the grandstands mostly full.

My favorite thing about this park, though, is the quotes painted on the walls of the tunnels leading from the concourse to the grandstands. There are the obligatory Yogi quotes:

And for my money, the best one is on top here:

One interesting aspect of the minor leagues, at least the ones I’ve seen, is that they all use the designated hitter. This being the Giants home game and their parent club being in the National League, you might think they’d want their baby pitchers to learn how to face serious pitching (notice I did not say hit) so they’ll be ready when they make it up the Bay. Even when both teams are affiliated with National League teams (you might recall from the Stockton game that the 66’ers are in the Angels organization), they use the DH. A puzzlement. Maybe I’ll be forced to do some research.

And finally, the 66’ers should hire me to attend all their games. They won 7-3.

Eats, Minor Leagues, Outfield Ads, Rants

Sonoma vs. Napa

Normally I use the team moniker rather than its city but this title is just too good to pass up – sounds like an article from the Wine Spectator on the relative merits of the special vintages of the two best known California wine regions.

But it’s about as far from fine wine as you can get. Instead, it is the Sonoma Stompers vs. the Napa Silverados, two teams from the Pacific Association, an independent league (not affiliated with any major league organization). Independent leagues come and go, but there are currently six that are considered viable. The players get paid, so they are professional, but just barely. Many live with host families and most are either high school or college players who were not drafted or signed by any major league club or guys who have played pro ball for a while, maybe even made it to the Show, but are quite unlikely to get there again but just can’t give up the game. They figure it’s better than being a bagger at the local grocery in their home town.

The reason I came to Sonoma is that two baseball quants, Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller, wrote a book published in 2016 called The Only Rule Is It Has To Work, and I finally got around to reading it this winter. They convinced the owner of the Stompers that they could use baseball analytics to turn the Stompers into league champions, and the book chronicles their efforts over one season. Like many books, it is too long (one of my pet peeves), but it is pretty entertaining, so if you’re good at skimming, I recommend it. I won’t reveal how the experiment worked out.

The Stompers, and the Pacific Association are kind of scruffy, just barely getting by, or they were before the book (more on that shortly). Guys don’t get paid enough to have their own apartment, so host families are important, as are other economies the teams must take. The P.A. is considered one of the lesser independent leagues, so these players aren’t going to be headlining in the Bigs anytime soon. All you have to do to understand this is watch a game. Lots of errors, passed balls, brain cramps and so on. The contrast with even short season A ball is evident.

Sonoma is one of those precious towns where only senior citizens with substantial bank balances can enter (exceptions to the age requirement can be made if your bank account is big enough) and they can enjoy the trendy shops, wine bars, art galleries and the like. And the Stompers have incorporated that ambience by offering such delicacies as a bacon and Brie burger ($16), Caesar salad (unadorned – $10) and a basic hot dog for $12. Oh yes, and admission to the park costs $14, the highest I’ve paid for this level of baseball. Not even minor league baseball, but seriously major league prices!

Anyway, the Stompers play their games at Arnold Field, which is also used for high school football. It features a small grandstand surrounding home plate (the outfield corners are blocked from view by the cinderblock dugouts) and some table seating along the left field line. The grandstand crowd was not more than 100, but they all seemed to know each other and at any given time, there was more visiting than baseball spectating happening there.

It was also Bark in the Park night, my second such promotion on this tour. What’s with bringing dogs to a ball game? They don’t fit conveniently in the seats, they sometimes scuffle with each other, pee in inconvenient places and don’t seem to revel in the experience very much.

I haven’t mentioned outfield ads in a while and all I can say about those at Arnold Field is that they were mostly so small as to be unreadable. The ones I could read were neither interesting nor unusual.

The Stompers came into the game leading the league, but gave up nine runs in the first three innings. They did get one solo homer, shown here just before and just after, and later got three more, back-to-back-to-back. Another feature of independent ball – the local fans (everyone except me) pass the hat for contributions to the player who hits a home run. They were going broke at this one. The Stompers scored a few more runs, but ultimately lost 10-7.

It wasn’t a pretty game. Weak pitching, poor defense and baserunning and high prices. What’s not to dislike?

Eats, Major Leagues, Oddity, Rants

A’s vs. Astros

From the sublime to the ridiculous. That is from beautiful Oracle Park to miserable Oakland Coliseum. Or maybe today it is RingCentral Coliseum (yes, all one word with a capital sort of in the middle). Or officially Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. Whatever name you use, it is a sorry excuse for a big league ball park. Yes, I know I previously hung that title on Tampa’s Tropicana, but the Coliseum is like a morgue in the concourse. There is nothing in the stadium identifying the park – as you can see from the picture, the space above the Jumbotron where the park name would normally be has all the panels removed. The field itself is fine, but that’s where it stops. Whoever thought luxury boxes in the outfield (all empty, by the way) were a good idea is now selling used cars.

This game was important for the A’s since they’re looking for that second wild card, but you wouldn’t know it by the crowd – a modest 15,000, though I must admit they were enthusiastic. The ticket seller assured me I’d be in the shade on the first base side and gave me a bargain seat for $15. Naturally, it was smack in the sun and only going to get worse on a very hot day. So finally, after being directed to three different places, I found a helpful attendant who got me to the interior ticket office and I got a seat on the third base side for $25 more. Oh well, it was a good seat.

The heat – that was a factor in this game. It started out looking like a pitchers duel – no score through the very quick first three innings. Then the fun began. Alex Bregman hit a two-run dinger for the Stros in the top of the fourth, only to be outslugged by Matt Olson who hit a three run tater in the bottom of the fourth. It got crazy from there. Every run in the game came via the long ball – ten total home runs, five for each team, with two from each team hitting two apiece. Matt Chapman’s second, a solo shot in the bottom of the eighth, won the game for the A’s 7-6. Of course it was the warm evening that allowed those fly balls to carry. A true home run derby.

I know Oakland is a diverse city, but who knew there was an upswell of interest in baseball in the Indian community? Someone apparently thought so, because it was Indian (and I don’t mean Native American) Heritage Night. Here are some of the kids who danced in the outfield before the game.

Another oddity is the “Holy Toledo” sign in center field, a tribute to the late A’s broadcaster, Bill King. It lights up when the A’s do something special. Its lights are probably burned out after all those dingers.

I have to show you a picture of Yordan Alvarez, the Astros DH, who came up on June 9 and has been tearing up the league ever since. He came into the game hitting .339 with 17 homers. I spotted him a couple years ago in the low minors in Davenport, Iowa and predicted he’d go far. Look back at my Davenport post and you’ll see my prediction. Naturally, in this game he went 0-4!

The food selection was meager, but the prices were not. I had a polish dog which was indistinguishable from a regular hot dog except for its slightly bigger circumference and its price.

Auxiliary food note: if you’re in the area, go to Tucker’s Super Creamed Ice Cream in Alameda. It’s an old-timey ice cream parlor and the ice cream is first rate. The Chocolate Fantasy is to die for.

Eats, History, Major Leagues

Giants vs. A’s

My friend David Mahoney very generously secured tickets for this afternoon game and, wonder of wonders, the seats were right behind home plate! That’s a true friend!

This was the second game of the latest installment of the Bay Bridge Series. The Giants won the first in dramatic fashion behind a stellar performance by Giants ace, Madison Bumgarner or Madbum as he is known here. So of course the A’s wanted to turn the tables and even the score. Further adding to the interest in this game is the fact that both teams are in the hunt for the second wild card spot in their respective leagues.

The game (and the series) were (this time) on the west end of the bridge in beautiful Oracle Park (as it is currently named), which is, indeed, one of the more interesting and comely baseball stadiums in the country. It features a seriously oversized Coke bottle (with a slide inside for the kids) and a very large replica of an old-fashioned baseball glove, not to mention the right field landing spot for many of Barry Bonds’ taters, McCovey Cove.

But the name, if it weren’t for the millions of dollars reaped by selling the naming rights, should be Willie Mays Park, since he has been the face of the franchise for nearly 70 years (he’s 88 and started with the Giants in 1951). This statue of him graces the entrance to the ballpark.

Although game time temperature was not up to Stockton’s standards (100), it was a very uncharacteristic 86 at the start and 88 by the end. I couldn’t help remembering the only game I ever attended at the Giants’ prior venue, Candlestick Park, which was in June and the end of a day in court. I knew I was in trouble when I arrived to see the ticket taker with his ear flaps down. My suit coat was scant protection against the Candlestick wind. I nearly froze to death. Not today.

The Giants win in the first game further nudged along, according to David Mahoney, the “happy talk” that the Giants were going to come back as in past years and get to the World Series. We both harbor some skepticism about that.

Our view was buttressed by the A’s offense (Matt Chapman hit two solo home runs and the team racked up 15 hits) and veteran Homer Bailey’s assortment of junk. Bailey didn’t give up a run, allowed only two hits while striking out seven and walking just one. The Giants didn’t have a clue. Oh yes, and he went two for three at the plate as well. But after Bailey left, the A’s relievers didn’t fare so well.

The high point of the game for me came in the bottom of the eighth when the Giants finally broke through to score five runs. The best three of those came on a first pitch home run by Mike Yastrzemski, the grandson of Carl Yastrzemski. Why? Because I happened to be at the game at Fenway Park in 1967 when Carl and the Red Sox clinched the pennant. Even though Mike’s dinger didn’t win the game, it was still a wonderful moment. Here he is just as the pitch is thrown and crossing home plate behind his mates. It wasn’t enough though as the A’s held on to win 9-5.

And let’s not forget food. Oracle has a good variety of food, though given it’s proximity to San Francisco’s large Chinatown, I would have expected more Chinese offerings. I saw only one, and it was obscure – I can’t remember the name. I had a Sheboygan sausage – wait, how did that happen – this ain’t Milwaukee – and it was good. But best of all was the organic food stand offering the world’s only “certified organic corn dog.” And to wash it down, you could get organic lemonade and vodka. No wonder California has so many people. The topper though – David told me this and even if it wasn’t true we’d have to believe it – the area beneath the Jumbotron in centerfield is planted in organic vegetables! Is this a great country or what?!

Eats, Minor Leagues, Oddity

Ports vs. 66’ers

I was repeatedly warned that the California Dreamin’ tour would be hot and my response was always to ask if the warner remembered last year’s Heat and Humidity tour. That normally closed down the conversation.

But they may have been right, since the evening began at 100 degrees. Of course it was a dry heat.

The Stockton Ports play their home games at Banner Island Ballpark, which is on the banks of the San Joaquin River, which really isn’t a river at all but rather part of the delta that goes all the way to the Pacific. Oh yes, and there is no discernible island. Maybe that’s why there is no sign to be found, inside or outside, identifying it as Banner Island Ballpark. You have to go to the Ports’ website for that. And another thing (which really doesn’t relate), the stadium clock was 15 minutes slow.

The Ports’ opponent for this game was the Inland Empire 66’ers of San Bernardino. Both teams play in the California League, which is Advanced A level. Stockton is currently in last place in the North Division and IE is last in the South. The pre-game tension was heavy. Perhaps reflective of the importance of this game, there were no more than 300 fans in attendance. The Ports are an Oakland A’s affiliate and the 66’ers belong to the Angels – a true California rivalry.

Interestingly, the Ports had only four Latin Americans on their roster, while the 66’ers had ten. As you might expect, nearly all the players are under 25.

Early in the game, a 66’ers hitter stroked a sharp ground ball to the far right of the first baseman. He made a spectacular diving stop only to look up to see the pitcher watching from the mound, thus giving the hitter a single. A fan right in front of me commented loudly enough for the pitcher to hear (with that non-crowd, shouting was unnecessary) “That’s gonna keep you on the bus.” And of course that runner came around to score the first run.

A quirk that I haven’t seen in any major league park is this dirt path from the dugout to the batter’s box. Maybe here in Stockton they don’t have enough water to irrigate that extra grass.

Another first was the first base coach for the 66’ers. An older gentleman with a less than athletic physique (that’s not unusual for coaches) had a gait and stance that strongly indicated he had suffered a recent stroke. I’m sure there’s a story there, but I’m not enough of a cub reporter to have shouted a question from the stands. Curious.

Then there’s the food. A meager selection since most of the concessions were closed. Once again, I made a rookie mistake. Because this was the first game of the tour, I opted not for the mandatory hot dog, but in tribute to my Latino friends selected the classic burrito. As you can see, it looks like a portly potato and was nearly as bland, at least till the last bite when I crunched down on a piece of wire. That’s a first (and I hope a last!).