Eats, Major Leagues, Oddity, Travel

Twins v. Angels

We came to Minneapolis for a wedding, but could not allow it to interfere with baseball. Add to that the fact that the Angels are in town, giving us the chance to see two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani, and it’s clear the stars are aligned.

But remember, baseball is a game of managed failure. Not long after we arrive, the notice on the Jumbotron advises that Ohtani has just gone on the DL with an ulnar collateral ligament strain. Probably more serious than it sounds.

OK, so the game must go on. We have the prospect of a pitching duel between Garrett Richards for the Angels and Lance Lynn for the Twins. It’s a pleasant evening with light breezes and no sign of the sprinkles that had been forecast earlier.

Target Field is nice. That word applies to so much in Minnesota, and it certainly does to this stadium. It is relatively compact and gives you a feeling of being part of the ballgame.

We find our seats and head off in search of food. That’s when I make a rookie mistake. I’ve been to Target Field before and so I know better, but I mindlessly went to the establishment food place and got the cheddar bratwurst and an “Italian” salad. Looks pretty good, huh?

My mistake was in failing to make a complete circuit of the ballpark before buying and simultaneously forgetting that when I was here last, I had a Kramarczuk’s brat, the best I’ve found at any major league park. And I didn’t remember it until I’d already downed the first one. Not only that, but the picture I took of the Kramarczuk grill didn’t turn out either. It would have made you weep. Failure engenders regret, and in this case, the regret nearly led me to have another brat, but that would have led to yet another failure (of the digestive system). Managed failure.

The evening was made memorable by the unusual promotion – it was Prince Night. And the giveaway was a blow-up purple guitar, seen here in all its glory. Yes, Prince was from Minnesota and yes, his color was purple, but what does that have to do with baseball?

The game did indeed turn out to be a pitcher’s duel with the score tied at one after two innings and continued that way till the sixth when Grossman hit a solo dinger to put the Twins up 2-1. Then the Angels stormed back with two of their own by the ever-dangerous Ian Kinsler and Justin Upton to reach the final of 4-2 for the Halos.

One surprise was Mike Trout going 0-4, striking out twice, once with the bases loaded. Didn’t matter in the end, though, except to his batting average. Oh yes, and as you can see from this picture, the Twins have extended their screens to mid-outfield. Farther than I’ve seen anywhere else.

MINNEAPOLIS

Since this rag is supposedly about travel as well as baseball, I should mention that Minneapolis is a beautiful city. We spent the better part of a day in the Minneapolis Institute of Art – known as Mia. It is a terrific museum with an eclectic collection, including a significant body of Asian art, both ancient and contemporary. I was particularly taken with the woodblocks of Japanese artist Kawase Hasui. They also have works by many of the impressionist and modern masters. A very impressive place.

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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.

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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.”

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History, M's, Major Leagues, Rants

Mariners Opening Day 2018

I normally write only about games I attend in person, so this post is an exception, since I watched the game on my TV. Likewise, there is usually travel involved, and for this one there wasn’t (unless you count the trips from the couch to the fridge). Also, I try always to include some pictures, but who wants a picture of my TV screen (your TV is probably bigger than mine – no, I will not comment on the relative size of anyone’s nuclear button!). So, sorry about the broken rules and unobserved norms, but I’m old and not as well behaved as I used to be.

For reasons I cannot fathom, I feel compelled to write as a member of that subset of the wretched of the earth, namely, Mariners fans. So if you do not suffer from that affliction, what follows may be of little interest. It is both a love letter and a rant.

The first point has to be that the M’s won their 2018 opening game at home against the very good Cleveland Indians and their Cy Young winner, Corey Kluber. It was a very good game (final score 2-1) and puts the M’s in a tie for first with (among others) the World Series champion Houston Astros. That probably won’t happen again this year, but it may stave off mathematical elimination (which we often fear will happen by May 1 [yes, I know, that cannot really occur (except in a strike-shortened season), but anyone who follows the M’s knows the feeling]) for a day or two.

King Felix Hernandez started the game (his 10th straight opening day start, 11th overall) and I was curious to see how he’d do. He clearly was not the M’s best pitcher last year (that was James Paxton), and he had an injury-shortened spring training, so the decision to start him was based more on nostalgia than analytics. Felix also no longer has the same stuff he did in earlier years. But he is adapting by changing speeds and locations and messing with batters’ expectations. He threw too many three ball counts, but got lucky and allowed no runs. The key for him in retaining his royalty will be staying healthy – it is a long season.

That leads to another observation. When the M’s suffered a blizzard of injuries in spring training, my friend Jim Smith observed that they not only had that to worry about, but also had to confront the fact that Nelson Cruz (age 37) and Robinson Cano (age 35) both tested positive for old. Add to that their starting left fielder the (formerly) incomparable Ichiro is 44, previously starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma is 36 and recently signed outfielder Jayson Werth is 38 and it becomes clear that they have something in mind. Management has obviously figured out that the baby boomers are moving to retirement homes and concluded that there’s money to be made in that business. But they have taken a lesson from their golfing buddies and gone them one better by developing their own clientele and combining the two into an entirely new venture . . . wait for it . . . SENIOR BASEBALL!

More seriously (read, depressingly) my friend John Nebel called my attention to an article in the Seattle Times that details the disastrous trades, mistakes, bad management and all around fecklessness by management that has kept the M’s out of the playoffs for 17 years. If you’re feeling particularly masochistic, you can read it here https://www.seattletimes.com/sports/mariners/analysis-why-the-mariners-will-end-the-drought-this-season-and-why-they-wont/.

A couple more thoughts. Cruz (Boomstick) won the game in the first inning with a mighty blast over the center field fence (on Kluber’s first pitch to him) after Cano got the M’s first hit just ahead of him. It looked great. But I can’t square that with his swing-and-a-miss motion at other times. How can such an awkward rusty-gate swing and the Boomstick thunder come from the same guy? I guess the obvious answer is that they’re not the same – one’s a miss and the other is a dinger.

Can we agree that Dee Gordon isn’t yet an outfielder? He should have had the easy fly ball that scored the Tribe’s only run. We know he’s fast and can hit, so I’ll try to be patient.

And don’t get me started about closer Edwin Diaz. I guess I should be pleased when a young guy honors tradition but channeling former M’s closers like Bobby Ayala, Jose Mesa (aka Joe Table) and Fernando Rodney is not my idea of a wise career move. He did get the save, but nearly at the expense of my suffering a heart attack.

Speaking of Rodney, did you see that in his first chance as the Twins new closer on opening day, he gave up a walk off homer to none other than Adam Jones, former Mariner and subject of perhaps the very worst trade (for Eric Bedard) in Mariners history? At least Rodney is no longer a Mariner. I wish Jones still was.

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Eats, History, Major Leagues, Rants

Nats v. Phillies

One of my partners said he was going to be in Washington D. C. and had the audacity to suggest that I join him for a game at Nationals Park.  What could I say?  I’m a complete pushover, so of course I was there.

The park is relatively new and looks larger than it is, with a seating capacity of just over 41,000.  If you count the boxes, it has five levels, which I think is unique in the big leagues.  It also has some history because of the long string of presidents who have attended big league games in Washington.  It also has a tapered screen, which I haven’t seen anywhere else, and they used a temporary screen along the foul line fences during BP, which was removed for the game.  That’s a new one, too.

On this night, folks were invited to bring their dogs (as in canines) to the game.  The rationale for this utterly escapes me, but it isn’t the first time I’ve seen it.  What was new, however, was a couple of squares of real grass on the concourse to provide the pups a natural place to do their business.  Think of the career opportunities – Washington Nationals pooper scooper intern!

As usual, we arrived early to check out the place and sat in centerfield to watch the Phillies take BP.  What we saw was remarkable and depressing.  An old guy (mid-60’s at least) was there with his glove along with some (unrelated) kids.  When one came our way, the old guy headed for it and used his glove to block a kid from getting to it.  When the kid’s dad confronted him, he was completely unapologetic for his behavior, yelling at the dad that he had the same rights as the kids.  I guess baseball has its dark side too.

The Nats jumped to an early lead, but soon fell behind on a couple of homers.  The Phils Tommy Joseph hit an extremely high pop up that looked to go foul down the left field line.  But it didn’t.  It also just managed to go over the left field fence.  If the total distance traveled in the air could be measured, I’m sure it would have been one of the longest dingers ever hit.  I certainly have never seen one that high actually leave the park.

The food was fairly standard, with the exception of one counter that sold only grilled cheese sandwiches, appropriately named “Throwin’ Cheese.”

And of course the in-game diversions.  Here we had the presidents race, oddly enough won by our founder, and the city’s namesake, George.

A good time was had by all and, in the end, the Nats rallied to take the game 4-3.

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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.

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Eats, Major Leagues, Rants

Yankees vs. Red Sox

Another day, another iconic stadium and rivalry. I first went to Yankee Stadium on my way to college in 1965 and saw the legends, Mantle and Maris (among others) along with the classic filigree along the roofline. Today it is a “new” stadium but with all the history and tradition of the franchise.

Unfortunately, (from my perspective at least), that also includes the somewhat gaseous “Monument Park” in center field. Yes, the Yankees have had a lot of great players, but here they are memorialized with brass plaques larger than those afforded the Hall of Fame inductees in Cooperstown. And you won’t be surprised to learn that the largest of them all commemorates that largest of personalities, George Steinbrenner. Ho hum.

On this occasion, a former Mariner, Michael Pineda, performed well. He kept the Red Sox off balance and mostly off the bases. Meanwhile, the Yankee bats roughed up David Price in just his third start since injury sidelined him in spring training. He gave up two homers (five RBI) to Gary Sanchez and three hits to Aaron Judge.
Speaking of Judge, you can see he wears number 99 on his jersey, one of very few in the history of major league baseball to do so. Why? It seems he was called up late in the season last year and for no particular reason, just stuck with his spring training number. There were flashes of the “Judge’s Chamber” on the Jumbotron, but I never did locate it in the stadium.  Truth be told, I’m not even sure what it is beyond the picture of a guy with a wig and gavel in a courtroom-like room.

This being New York, it seemed imperative that I indulge in a kosher hot dog. But that presented a dilemma – Nathan’s or Hebrew National. With nothing to go on but instinct, I chose Hebrew National and was not disappointed. Footlong with plenty of kraut and mustard and I was a happy camper. Especially for just $7.50. On the other end of the scale, beer was $12.50 (I concluded the old saying might apply – especially on a cool, cloudy night – absence [actually abstinence] makes the heart grow fonder). I’ll await a hot evening for that beer at a better price.
And now for the rant. It looked to me like less than a third of the fans were in their seats for the first pitch. And at least half were gone by the seventh inning. The young folks in front of me consumed a lot of beer and saw at best three or four plays the entire game. Chattering, taking selfies and otherwise depleting their phone batteries seemed to be their reasons for attending. Why bother? Go somewhere else that has cheaper beer and leave the baseball to us geeks.

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