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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Eats, Major Leagues

O’s vs. Pirates

At long last, a visit to the iconic Camden Yards.  Actually, its title is “Oriole Park at Camden Yards,” but until I got there, I’d never heard the “Oriole Park” part of it.  Camden Yards is the first of the new “old” stadiums, opened in the ’90’s, and it is a lovely park.  

The main entrance opens on an esplanade in front of the Warehouse, which is the view from home plate and which no batter has ever hit on the fly (except Junior Griffey in an All Star exhibition).

Because this is Maryland, and because the food most closely associated with Maryland is soft-shelled crab, I felt obliged to try their local specialty.  My crab salad roll had plenty of crab, not a lot of flavor, a price tag double that of a premium hot dog, and I couldn’t help feeling that this somehow violated the unwritten rules of baseball.  It didn’t help that I could  hear a juicy sausage calling my name.

On my trip last year, I always sat close in, or at least not in the outfield (inside the lines).  For this game, I decided to opt for a close-up view of two of the premier outfielders in the game, the O’s Adam Jones and the Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen, so I got a seat in the third row in left center, right next to the bullpen.  It was a great spot for watching those outfielders, but not so good for watching the game – it was so low to the field that there was no sense of the spatial aspect of the diamond, and as dusk descended, I found it harder to pick up the ball coming off the bat.  That gave me an enhanced appreciation for the skill of the outfielders.

McCutchen

Jones

Speaking of them, you will notice that Jones wears his pants at knee length (though without stirrups) and McCutchen in the current all-the-way-down style.  McCutchen isn’t as readily recognizable now without his dreadlocks, but, unlike Samson, his loss of hair has not sapped his strength.  In the sixth inning, he hit a long one that looked like a goner only to have his counterpart Jones track it down at the wall for the the third out.  Earlier, as a base runner on third, McCutchen had to hit the deck to avoid a foul ball and stayed there momentarily to rip off a few push-ups, much to the delight of the crowd.

The game was a snoozer, thanks in no small part to the play of two former Mariners, Wade Miley and Seth Smith.  Miley started the game, but couldn’t get through the third inning, looking as though he was throwing BP for the Pirates.  Smith struck out twice in an O-fer that contributed nothing to the effort.  My red eye from Portland the night before caught up with me and I thought it would be embarrassing to be found sound asleep in the stands long after the game ended, so I left a little early with the Pirates up 6-1.

Miley in the bullpen

Bad move.  O’s pinch hitter Trey Mancini came in to launch not one but two dingers, the first to put the O’s back in the game and the last a walk-off to win it 9-6.  Oh well. . .

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Eats, M's, Major Leagues, Oddity

Spring Training – Mariners

Surprise.  Again.

Yes, same stadium, two days in a row.  Surprise Stadium is shared by the Rangers and the Royals, and this time the Royals were the home team against the Mariners.  And, yes, I am still a Mariners fan.  So we go from the sublime (the Cubs and Indians, fresh off their epic World Series battle) to the ridiculous (the M’s may have the longest current streak of not making the playoffs).  I can’t help myself.

I’ll start by saying that I was delighted when the M’s got Jarrod Dyson from the Royals.  The fellow I sat next to (a KC loyalist) did not share my happiness but agreed that M’s fans would be pleased.  He had a very good day against his former team.

At the outset, it looked like the varsity against the scrubs.  The Royals started many of their vets, including Jason Vargas (a former Mariner), Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas and their compensation for giving up Wade Davis to the Cubs, Jorge Soler.  Seattle, on the other hand, was missing 14 players who were competing for various countries in the World Baseball Classic, so their team was largely no-names and a couple of recently acquired guys who are supposed to make them great again (wait, were they ever great?).  Soler, by the way, didn’t look so good for the Royals.

But lo and behold, the scrubs not only won, they dominated and looked very good.  The Mariners played the best baseball we saw this week, with a couple of stellar defensive plays and very good pitching by Chase De Jong.  De Jong, so the rumor mill has it, may make the starting rotation even though he’s never made the big leagues.  He’s just 23 years old, but showed a lot of poise and definitely kept the Royals off balance during his four innings of work.

The M’s may also have the player with the most unpronounceable name Marc Rzepczynski (zep chin ski), a veteran who has bounced from team to team for several years.

Now for the mystery – the arm sleeve.  It is all the style these days for athletes in many sports to wear an arm sleeve on their dominant arm.  It supposedly helps in recovery from injury, prevents swelling, keeps the muscles warm, etc., etc.  But riddle me this – with the temperature hovering at 95, who needs to keep their arm warm?  I don’t get it.  And one sporting the accessory, Seattle’s Dan Vogelbach (acquired from the Cubs last year), isn’t yet making waves in spring training.

Oh yes, did I mention the monster dog?  A foot of hot dog delight!

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Eats, Major Leagues

Spring Training – Indians

The first two games on this trip featured the two teams in last year’s World Series – the Cubs and the Indians.  The Indians were actually the visiting team at the Texas Rangers’ Surprise Stadium in Surprise, Arizona, founded in 1938 by Flora Mae Statler, who named it Surprise as she “would be surprised if the town ever amounted to much”.

Before the game started, I witnessed a poignant moment at home plate when the Indians manager, Terry Francona, gave a big bear hug to Mike Napoli, who played first on the Indians 2016 World Series team before being traded to the Rangers in the off season.  Most of the veterans in the big leagues know one another and many friendships cross team lines.

Not many stars played for either team, though the Indians starter, Trevor Bauer, he of the unconventional training techniques, did reasonably well, getting the Indians out to a 7-1 lead after three innings.  That said, this was not a particularly well-played game. For example, early on, the Rangers had runners on first and second with no outs.  The batter hit a long drive to deep center and the runner on second naturally tagged up to go to third.  The center fielder, making a rookie mistake, threw to third (he had no chance of getting the runner), which enabled the runner on first to tag up and advance as well.  So instead of having runners on first and third with one out (which would have been the result had he properly thrown to second), thus keeping the double play a possibility, they had runners on second and third.  There were other errors as well and a whole lot of offense.

That’s not surprising in spring training, since pitchers are honing their skills for the regular season and taking care to avoid injury, whereas the hitters are freer to swing away.  So this game saw 31 hits by the two teams and a final run by the Rangers in the bottom of the ninth brought them from behind to win 12-11.

One tidbit you don’t see much in the regular season is the bat boy taking water to the field umpires a couple of times during the game.  Makes sense, given that these games are played in the afternoon in 90 degree weather.  Remember too that most regular season games are played at night.

A word about food.  Finally, a decent bratwurst!

Finally, a word about base coaches.  The Indians first base coach, Sandy Alomar, had a very distinguished playing career and a very short managerial career, but rumor has it that he’s been on the short list for a managerial post several times.  Tony Beasley, the Rangers third base coach, never played in the majors, but has a long coaching and managing career in the minors and several years of coaching in the bigs.  Typically, third base coaches become managers and first base coaches don’t.  These two may not fit the mold.

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Major Leagues, Travel

Spring Training – Cubs

My friend Ira and I drove two days from Portland to bask in the Arizona sunshine and, more importantly, start the 2017 season right.  Ira is a lifelong Cubs fan, having grown up in Chicago, so it was only fitting that we begin with a Cubs game.

But first we had to get there – to Mesa, that is.  We drove south through Oregon on I-5, which is okay after you get past Salem, but not entirely inspiring.  So after we convinced the border guards in California that we were not vegetables (good thing they didn’t ask some of our family members!) and therefore not subject to confiscation, we turned east just past Mount Shasta and headed towards Nevada.  That went pretty well – beautiful and not too many people.  But the second day wasn’t so great – some traffic in Las Vegas and a one-hour halt south of there for road construction put us off our schedule.

Because of the winter that the west coast has had this year, Nevada and Arizona, which are congenitally brown, were eerily green everywhere we looked.  There were even wild flowers growing beside the road.

But I digress.  We went to Sloan Park (sadly, the Cubs no longer live at Hohokam Stadium for spring training) early to watch BP.  You may wonder how hitting 60-70 mph pitches can really help hone a batter’s skills.  I don’t know the full answer to that question, but as you can see, the BP pitcher is almost halfway to the plate from the mound, so the batter has to decide pretty fast.

We were joined by my son Eli to watch as the Cubs played the Brewers on a beautiful, if hot, day (game time temp was 91 degrees, and the field announcer took great delight in pointing out that it was 22 degrees and snowing in Chicago).  Nearly all the Cubs stars started the game and Kris Bryant got it off to a good start with a dinger.  The Cubs dominated, despite three caught stealing, and led 6-2 at one point.  But the Brewers came back and, thanks to a throw from left by an unnamed rookie that was airmailed into the stands, went ahead 7-6 in the top of the ninth.  Cubs tied it with another homer in the bottom of the ninth and that’s the way it ended.  Can you imagine –  they don’t play extra innings in spring training!

One interesting feature in spring training is the mixture of veterans and rookies.  Typically the veterans start and play a few innings before the rookies get a chance to show their stuff.  You can tell who’s who by their numbers – rookies have high numbers and, at least for Milwaukee, don’t get their names on the back of their jerseys.

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Major Leagues, Rants

Cubs win, Cubs win!

The long drought is over and citizens of Cubs Nation the world over can rejoice.  As a baseball fan, I always hope for a seven game series and this, in my humble opinion, was one of the best (though not as good over all as the 1991 Braves-Twins epic).  Game seven was certainly one to remember.  The only problem with a World Series like this one is that one team has to lose.  It almost doesn’t seem fair.

All that said, I do have some questions that collectively could fairly be termed a rant.  1 – why did Maddon put Chapman in for 2+ innings in game 6 when they had a five run lead?  2 – why did he pull Hendricks so quickly in game 7?

Now I’ll drop the pretense.  I see no benefit to putting Chapman into game 6 – he wasn’t needed.  Doing that sent the message to the rest of the bullpen that they can’t be trusted to protect a five run lead.  It also gave the Indians another, longer good look at him, and throughout games 5-7, Maddon knew he was (he hoped) managing a seven game series.  And he also must know that big league hitters adjust – they can, as the Indians demonstrated in game 7, catch up to 100+ mph fast balls and hit them out of the park.  Chapman was out of gas in game 7, but if he’d only pitched the 9th, maybe that would have worked.

My real beef is Maddon’s pulling of Hendricks.  He had pitched masterfully, but just as soon as he walked a batter (with two out) on a very questionable call by the home plate umpire, Maddon hooked him.  Maddon, like too many others, is in love with velocity.  Hendricks doesn’t have it – he just gets guys out and managed to record the lowest ERA in the NL this year.  What happened?  Lester came in and gave up two runs!  Hendricks would not have done that.

Yes, Maddon won, but he was lucky.

So much for the rant.  It was a wonderful series and I can’t wait till next year.

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