Eats, M's, Major Leagues

Spring Training, 2019

If one must be in Phoenix in March on business, it is important to observe the real business of that month in that city – baseball. So I did.

Spring training is different. Some say it is no longer necessary because the players work out year-round and don’t need to get in shape for the season. Others say with all the trades and shifting rosters, it is essential for teams to have the opportunity provided by the short spring training “season” to adjust to one another, work out the kinks, practice some things that won’t be easy to do during the regular season (does anybody bunt anymore?), and so on. Mostly, spring training is for pitchers, and by the third week of March, they’re mostly tuned up.

Games are different too, because winning is not the primary goal. For the regulars, it is about a hole in the swing, a new pitch, adjusting to the shift or dealing with whatever weakness the player or coaches may have identified. For the newbies, it’s all about making an impression that might get you to the Show, preferably on Opening Day, but if not then, certainly in the first call-up. So a pitcher may stay in and keep throwing even if he’s getting shelled because “he needs the work.” A slugger won’t necessarily get pulled for consecutive strike outs.

That said, the regulars rarely play after the fifth inning, and from there on the minor leaguers on the field are mostly anonymous because they have high numbers and no name on their jerseys.

I saw six games in five days and had company for each one. The first was a slug-fest between the Indians and the Royals, final score 17-7 for the Royals with 32 hits between the two teams. There was a vocal fan behind us who had a couple of memorable lines: on a grounder hit by Alex Gordon, he said “It’s all about launch angle;” and again, when Gordon appeared to slow down between third and home suggested “Get out of the kitchen and learn how to run!”

My only night game (a relatively recent addition to the spring training playbook) featured the Mariners against the Giants. Given the housecleaning the Mariners deemed necessary and the high likelihood that the Giants will finish out of the money, this seemed likely to be the first minor league game of the year. The draw was 45 year old Ichiro Suzuki, who looked bad striking out twice, preparing for Opening Day in Tokyo in what will be (we can only hope) his final big league (partial) season. You know when their hopes rest on journeyman shortstop Tim Beckham that it will be a long season.

The Giants provided a note of levity when they brought in switch-pitcher Pat Venditte in relief. I think he’s the only one playing now, and he changes pitching arms batter to batter. The rules provide that he must signal the umpire which arm he will use, so a switch-hitting batter has the last word. Venditte didn’t fool many batters, giving up the hits and runs that led to the Mariners 8-4 win. One observant fan, noting Venditte’s lack of success from either side, advised loudly “you’re gonna need a third arm.”

The next day saw us at Sloan Stadium, home of the Cubs, who took on the Rangers on a sunny but chilly day. The unusual aspect of this game was that Chicago started all of its regulars except Addison Russell and most played through the fifth inning. Yu Darvish pitched and actually looked pretty good. The other uncharacteristic feature of the game was the 1-1 score till the end when the Cubs pulled it out, 2-1. (Spring training games typically see plenty of runs.)

The best play of the game was turned in by Delino Deshields of the Rangers making a diving catch in center – twice! I was amazed until I realized that this was Jr., not Pops, who I had decided must have been playing since the ’50’s.

Next was the Brewers vs. the Padres at Maryvale Park, the Brewers home. No Manny Machado to boo, and the Brewers took and held the lead on three runs scored on consecutive pop-ups to left that were stylishly misplayed. Brewers pitcher, Brandon Woodruff, threw his fastball at 99 mph and his change at 81. That’s tough on any hitter. Ryan Braun should have been but seemingly wasn’t embarrassed on a clean double to right when he dogged it and got thrown out at second. No matter – Brewers won, 6-2.

On to Camelback Ranch, home of the Dodgers and White Sox, who just happened to play each other in their “home” stadium. Most of the parks in the Cactus League are shared by two teams. It would be interesting to learn how those pairings come to be (they’re not always from different leagues), but that is beyond my ken.

This wasn’t a very interesting game. The Dodgers scored two in the second and that was it. The new, trimmer, Kenley Jansen pitched the fifth, apparently to get in his work, but wasn’t terribly impressive.

One thing we noticed here and in the previous game was that sometimes the NL teams let their pitchers hit (bunt) and sometimes they use a DH, even occasionally changing within the game. I couldn’t figure out a pattern to it, and maybe there isn’t one. Ask your baseball expert friends and let me know.

The last game was also at Camelback, featuring the Dodgers against the Brewers in a reprise of the 2018 NLCS. Looked like the Dodgers had it well in hand (and they did) until the scrubs came in and Milwaukee charged back to take it 9-8.

I had dogs at each ballpark, but none were memorable save the legendary Dodger Dog, which was long, cold and terrible.

Other than that, it was a great way to start the year. We’ll hope for many more baseball adventures as the season unfolds.

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Eats, History, M's, Major Leagues

Dodgers vs. Rockies

Before I address anything else, I have to say this is the best game I’ve seen all year and maybe even longer than that. What began as a pitching matchup between Dodger ace Clayton Kershaw and Rox star (get it ?) Kyle Freeland in the very tight NL West race delivered big time. There was good pitching, some amazing defensive plays, crowd excitement and a beautiful evening. Oh yes, and a walk off homer!

We came to L. A. to visit our son and enjoyed a terrific meal and evening of entertainment at the Magic Castle the evening prior, all to prepare for baseball. Neither disappointed.

This was not my first time at Dodger Stadium – that happened almost fifty years ago and there have been many other visits since then. The facility has been modernized and upgraded since then, but the basic feel remains the same. For this game, we were on the lower level and the problem we encountered was that the slope of the stands is too gradual, meaning that all too often, the folks in front of you sometimes partially (or in our case completely) block your view. The two in front of us did this often, having taken on considerable fan fuel before the game and needing to work it off with (all too) frequent chants of “Let’s go Dodgers” encouraging all nearby to join in. Let’s just say the decibel level was high and constant.

Another feature I complained about during the Heat/Humidity Tour is advertising on the foul poles. Those advertised chicken, but the Dodgers took a whole different approach – an Arabic airline.

One surprising and unfortunate aspect – the visual and audio on the Jumbotron were not synchronized. You’d think that the spend on the stadium upgrade would have fixed such a basic problem.

I thought I was mixed up when the grounds crew came out to drag the infield at the end of the second inning. Turns out they do that every other inning here. The standard everywhere else is every third inning.

As to the game, this was an important one for the NL West race. The D’Backs have tanked, so it’s really down to the Dodgers and the Rockies, both for the division title and the wild card. The Dodgers won the first game of the series, putting them a half game ahead, so this one meant either going up 1 1/2 games or 1/2 game back again. For much of the time, the score was tied at 2. In the bottom of the ninth, with two out and nobody on, Yasmani Grandal just missed a walk off home run – caught at the warning track. But then in the bottom of the tenth, Chris Taylor (former Mariner!) managed it for the first time in his career, to the delight of the home crowd.

And then there’s the food. The “naked chicken” wasn’t really naked – it was breaded and deep fried.

Here’s the always popular helmet o’ grub.

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But you can’t go to Chavez Ravine and not have a Dodger dog. Or two. Or three.

Finally, it was bobble head night – Matt Kemp was the subject, shown here in that form and in the flesh.

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History, Major Leagues, Rants

Hall of Fame Redux

The only fitting finale to the Heat/Humidity Tour is a visit to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been, but it is always rewarding. And this one fell on the weekend after the annual induction ceremony, so the crowds were minimal (we were even able to park on the street for free just a few blocks away!).

Speaking of inductions, here’s the six (can you believe it?) who got in this year. Still no Edgar Martinez, which is just wrong. Lobby your representatives people!

Before we got to the Hall, we spotted this hat in one of the many baseball-themed shops that populate Main Street. The explanation leaves many questions unanswered, but provides a truly obscure bit of baseball trivia to use with your friends.

Shortly after entering the Hall, there was a public announcement that the Astros’ world series trophy was on display but would be removed in just over an hour. It looked like all the others I’ve seen, but here it is.

See my July 26, 2016 post about the Hall. None of the suggestions I made then have implemented (is no one listening?!). The museum portion is still much too artifact based. Along with the suggestions I made before, there should be a significant offering on analytics and how it has and is changing the game. But it is baseball and tradition reigns supreme.

I was also shocked that neither the bookstore nor the museum shop carried Tom Verducci’s excellent book, Cubs Way, by far the best baseball book I’ve read in recent years.

The terrific Henry Aaron display has one quote I’d forgotten: “Trying to throw a fastball by Henry Aaron is like trying to sneak a sunrise past a rooster.” Pitcher Curt Simmons.

This display of baseballs from the 1800’s intrigued me because of the small stitches on the balls compared to today’s version. There were others from the early days displayed elsewhere, including the lemon peel ball which had four seams running “vertically.”

So this tour is over. Eighteen states, eleven games, 4,876 miles, way too much ballpark food, but lots and lots of fun. I highly recommend it.

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Eats, M's, Major Leagues, Oddity

Mets vs. Braves

Well, I finally did it – Citi Field, home of the Mets, was the last of the 30 major league parks that I had not yet visited, and now I can add it to the list. Someone told me he had a friend who went to 29, fearing that if he went to the 30th, there’d be nothing left to look forward to. Obviously, that’s not my view. There’s always a game tomorrow and, in the end, the particular ballpark isn’t that important.

I regret that there are a lot of parks I never saw: Shea, Veterans, Comisky and many more, but I did see the old Yankee Stadium and Candlestick, so I didn’t miss them all.

You can click here to read all about Citi Field. It opened in 2009, replacing Shea Stadium, and the most striking feature as you enter is the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, featuring quotes, film and pictures of the star. It gives the feel of entering a sacred space.

The park itself seems monstrous with (depending on how you count) five to eight levels (five without the suites), but the seating capacity is only 42,000, far less than Shea and many other parks.

The first thing I noticed looking at the field was this bird. I can’t tell what sort of bird it is, but I can tell you it was diligent. It stayed in one place in shallow left, apparently eating, all through the ground crew’s field prep and finally flew away only when the players took the field.

The Mets are in last place in their division and the Braves are just a half game out of first starting this game. In consequence of the Mets standing, I was struck by this sign. Either the coffee is lousy or the Mets aren’t drinking enough of it. I should also note that they have only one starter hitting above .250 (.265) and none above .300. One of their alleged stars, Jose Bautista, is barely above the Mendoza line.

There are two other Mets players I took note of, former Mariner Jason Vargas, who started the game, and former Oregon State standout, Michael Conforto. Vargas used his usual junk, but didn’t baffle ’em, giving up four runs and taking the loss. (Did I mention that his ERA was above 8.00 starting the game?). Conforto did nothing special either, and I think it’s fair to say the Mets are done for the year.

Conforto

The game time temperature was 85 degrees and rain was predicted, somewhere along about the third inning. It didn’t happen till the eighth and then not enough to delay the game. I thought I was in for my third consecutive rainout, but this one finished.

Heading to the ballpark, I nursed a faint hope about the food. In my scouting of the food stands, I noted a good variety – better than most big league parks – and their prices were pretty much in line with most. My stomach danced when I saw the sign for an “authentic” New York pastrami sandwich. I knew it would be typical ballpark fare – prepared last week and kept on a steam table ever since. But no, the chef pulled out the rye bread, slathered the Gulden’s mustard on it, and proceeded to slice a ridiculous amount of pastrami right in front of me. I thought he was fixing several orders, but no (once again), he piled it all right on my bread! And he shoveled the ends into the basket too. I couldn’t believe it! And when I tasted it, I realized I had come to New York heaven. The game was secondary. I was in post-prandial bliss. Take a look at this baby.

So the quest for the major league parks is over, but baseball goes on. Now I can focus on the game.

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Eats, History, Major Leagues, Rants

Braves vs. Marlins

Next to last major league ballpark for me, SunTrust Park, where the Atlanta Braves play their home games. It was opened last year, replacing Turner Field. It is big, seemingly functional, and for my money, undistinguished. It has four levels and the seat prices are certainly lower than Houston. The main concourse is wide and the scoreboards well placed and visible, communicating lots of information.

It also features a “Memorial Garden” reminiscent of Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park. But this one has a very cool display – 755 bats make up the record for home runs set by the Braves’ Hank Aaron.

I got to the stadium early and was surprised to hear over an hour of ballpark organ music. A nice relief from the usual blaring public address announcer or blasting music of another sort.

The Braves are in second place in their division, coming off the near no-hitter by Sean Newcomb, but they started poorly, giving up two runs in the first. Pitcher Julio Teheran later helped his own cause with an RBI single, and the Braves went on to win, 5-3.

I was pleased to see Dansby Swanson starting for the Braves at short. He was the number one overall pick in the 2015 by the Diamondbacks and started his professional career with none other than the Hillsboro Hops. The D’Backs traded him to Atlanta the next year and though he’s not a powerhouse at the plate, he’s been solid on defense. And, he’s back home in Georgia.

Swanson

For the first time on this trip, the game-time temperature dropped below 90. It was 83 degrees. I hope I don’t have to rename the tour!

You’ve heard me rant about the shift in a previous post. I observed in this game a new twist (I’d actually seen it in a few games on TV, to be honest). The Marlins played Freddie Freeman straight up at first, but once he got two strikes, the third baseman moved to the other side of second. It worked – Freeman grounded to the second baseman, who was playing not too far to the right of the first baseman, in shallow right field. (Unfortunately for the Marlins, it didn’t work the next at bat – Freeman homered.)

The food was not worth writing about and hardly worth eating. Almost no variety. Boring.

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Eats, Major Leagues, Rants

Astros vs. Rangers

We got in to Houston at a reasonable hour and, on a hunch, decided to stop by the stadium to get tickets in advance. I’ve never had a problem getting tickets on game day, so I thought this was a bit of a lark, but to my great surprise, we could not get two tickets together. Instead, we were offered the option of SRO tix, so I thought that would be a good departure from the norm and give me a different perspective on the game. The price was a shock – $27 each (the Astros seem to be taking advantage of their World Series victory by jacking up all their prices), but I figured we’d have free reign over the entire building. Come on, regular season games never sell out, but apparently because it was Friday night, the Astros and Rangers and the defending world champions, there was a big demand.

So we decided to arrive early and scope things out. Minute Maid Park (I can’t say that name without smirking) opened in 2000, replacing the old Astrodome. The first thing we noticed, of course, is that the building is air conditioned (did I mention that game-time temp was 96 degrees?). It has a retractable roof and natural grass, so it is like the Marlins Park in that regard. The glass wall is an interesting feature.

The second thing we noticed was that most of the SRO spots on the first level were obstructed, as you can see here.

So, after scoping out the food options (more on that later), we ventured to the third level and that looked much more promising, until we were told that SRO tix were only good on the first level. Back to ground zero. That began a series of less than pleasant encounters with ushers who said we couldn’t stand there. We countered by pointing out that we were behind the green line and there was always some additional reason given that we had to move along. Finally an usher said we could talk to the folks at “Fan Accommodation.” Once again we were told we could only get single seats, not together, for prices starting in the mid $90’s.

We kept moving around, trying to watch the game and find a place where we could see the scoreboard, with only limited success. Finally, we went back to the third level and grabbed unoccupied seats, got ousted twice and eventually landed in some that had been abandoned and were not further bothered.

We were quite simply hornswoggled. We were not told that SRO tix were only good on the first level, that all such views are obstructed, that we would be hassled by ushers and really wouldn’t be able to watch the game. It did not leave us with a favorable impression of the Astros, of Minute Maid Park or of Houston.

To top it off, several of the Astros starters did not play and their starter, Dallas Keuchel didn’t have his good stuff. The lackadaisical Rangers we saw just a day ago simply hammered the ‘Stros 11-2, starting off with a perfectly executed suicide squeeze play in the second inning. That added a note of sweet revenge.

One perhaps unsurprising feature was the crowd singing “Deep in the Heart of Texas” after “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in the seventh inning stretch.

Like the Rangers, they also have advertising on the foul poles. In addition to being a violation of baseball tradition (mine, anyway), they could pose a problem in determining if a fly ball is foul because of the white lettering.

I’ve heard it said that the reason baseball players get pulled hamstrings is because they only run forwards. Basketball players run all directions and that injury is uncommon in that sport. So occasionally you’ll see this sort of pre-game warm-up work going on in a big league game. I’ve never seen it in the minors.

On the food front, we were hungry by the time we got settled at our motel, so we had a late lunch/early dinner at R & K Barbeque. Very satisfying and filling. As a consequence, the only thing we ate at the ballpark was ice cream. Good, but like everything there, seriously overpriced. The food variety was not up to Rangers standards either.

Enough ranting. Next come the Baby Cakes.

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Eats, M's, Major Leagues, Rants, Travel

Rangers vs. A’s

So the accident in Reno cost me five games, but four days of hard driving put me back on schedule. I will just note a point I have made before – our interstate highway system is in poor condition, and it does not appear that much repair or maintenance is going on.

But back to the important stuff. Brother Tom flew in to join me as the Rangers took on the A’s at Globe Life Park. I should say first that it is an attractive ballpark. It is almost 25 years old, but is to be replaced with a new, air-conditioned park with a retractable roof in 2020. One of the principal reasons was illustrated at this game – 102 degrees at game time – and a sparse crowd supports the argument.

The Rangers have given up. They traded Cole Hamels to the Cubs, and their play was lackadaisical. Without knowing anything, it was easy to tell from the way the two teams carried themselves who was in the cellar and who was a contender.

The treat of the game for me was watching Rangers starting pitcher, forty-five year old Bartolo Colon, who has been in the game forever. He went seven innings, gave up six earned runs and took the loss but was still fun to watch. Talk about slow motion! The Rangers also have the aging Adrian Beltre, who is beloved in Texas, but did nothing during his stint with the Mariners. I’m only slightly bitter about that.

Colon

Beltre

The most remarkable feature of the game was five triples, four by Oakland and one by Texas. I’ve done some quick looking and can’t find any reference to that ever happening before. One of you stat freaks who has more time might find it. One of those triples illustrated my earlier point about the Rangers – it was a good hit by the A’s batter, but a hustling outfielder might have held it to a single. As it was, the loping outfielder seemed unconcerned that the runner was on his way to third. The Rangers have given up.

Here’s one of my pet peeves that you may have heard about – the shift (three infielders on the same side of second base). Why in the world don’t hitters learn to bunt the opposite way??? They would be guaranteed a single and eventually the defense would stop shifting. MLB is thinking about banning it by rule, but I say make the hitters fix it.

This ad is clever, but it offends my sense of baseball propriety to have an ad on the foul pole. (And, to my earlier point, notice how few spectators there are in the stands?)

The eats were mediocre but the prices weren’t. I had a BBQ beef brisket that was probably prepared last week. And there wasn’t a lot of variety. We’ll wait till Houston to see if we can make a sweeping generalization about Texas food. We did see one new item, but lacked the courage to try it.

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