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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Eats, M's, Minor Leagues, Oddity

Yard Goats vs. Thunder

I came to Hartford solely because of the novelty of their team’s name – the Yard Goats. Like other unusual minor league team names, it was the result of a contest. It is a slang term for a rail yard worker, but that has no connection to this team or its ballpark.

So I was a bit surprised when a good game broke out. The game was scoreless until the ninth – a real pitchers duel, including one inning when the Thunder loaded the bases with no outs and didn’t score. And there were some terrific defensive plays by both teams.

Hartford is affiliated with the Rockies and Trenton (the Thunder) with the Yankees. They play in the AA Eastern League and the quality of play was on par with AAA or MLB ball. The Thunder finally scored two in the top of the ninth, but the Goats came back with a solo homer and then a single, but it ended there, 2-1 for the Thunder.

Dunkin’ Donuts paid for the naming rights to the ballpark, which was supposed to open in 2016, but construction delays forced the Goats to play their entire ’16 season on the road. It opened last year and apparently draws good crowds. When I stopped in the early afternoon to buy my ticket, the first answer was the game was sold out. The clerk then corrected himself and did find me a ticket, but the crowd for the game was robust.

Game time temperature was 81 degrees, so for the whole tour, only one game (Winston-Salem) started below 80.

No name oddities this time, but I did note that the Thunder carry the son of former Mariner disaster reliever, Jose Mesa, otherwise known as “Joe Table” (the literal translation of the name, and he regularly set the table for opposing batters). Junior is also a pitcher.

I tried to get a good picture of the team name on a uniform and what I ended up with was this one of a batter who twirled his bat after each pitch.

I could not face another ballpark hotdog or BBQ sandwich so I looked (in vain) for a salad or something with a lower salt quotient. Nothing. The only vegetables were the pickles and kraut on the condiment table. So I tried a bag of peanuts – wouldn’t you know – it was “peanut-free” night! There was a “donut dog” on offer, but that just seemed way too wrong.

The only real oddity (and you’d have to go to a lot of ballgames to consider it such) was the singing of “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch. That practice ended several years ago. Then one of the announcers sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” while the crowd sat. Quite different.

Oh yes, and the goats. In a pen on the outfield concourse. Precious.

So this year’s tour is over except for the Hall of Fame, and that will happen on Sunday. Stay tuned.

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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, M's, Minor Leagues, Oddity

Dash vs. Mudcats

Game time temp – 77 degrees. Holy moly – at this rate, I’ll need my parka for Hartford!

These two teams play in the Advanced A Carolina League. The Winston-Salem Dash have long been affiliated with the White Sox and the Carolina Mudcats (Zebulon, N.C.) are now with the Brewers. It was a good game, but the skill level was not up to AA standards.

For me, the coolest aspect of the evening was that the Dash is (are?) managed by former Mariner and All Star shortstop, Omar Vizquel. And there he is, coaching third base when the Dash bat.

BB & T Ballpark (named by and for BB & T, a Winston-Salem based bank – it stands for “Branch Banking and Trust Company” – no wonder they shortened it!) opened in 2010 is very snappy. It has luxury suites, an upper deck, a wide concourse and a seating capacity of 5,500. It seems very ritzy for a Single A league, but I guess the bank can afford it.

The game entered the fifth inning tied at one and there were a few raindrops before the top half ended. Most of the fans took cover for the bottom half, when the Dash quickly scored two runs to take the lead. That was it, because the heavens opened and before long, the field was a lake.

After the tarp was rolled out

The most unusual aspect to the evening was the entry, before the game started, from the left field gate onward to the first base side of 45 kids wearing purple shirts and (many of them) yarmulkes. Huh? In North Carolina? So I had to go talk with them. Turns out, they are from “Camp4Ever,” a New York area program for Jewish kids who have a parent with cancer or who died from cancer. It is a two week road trip for the kids, at no expense to them, to give them a break from the stress of their family situation. And they were enthusiastic!

After the rain started, they gathered on the concourse and sang, did cheers and chants and generally had a good time. Better yet, they cheered up everyone else who was hoping, vainly, for more baseball. I was impressed.

I must confess that I skipped the ballpark food. I was hungry when I got to town and so scouted out the best local barbeque, since North Carolina claims some bragging rights in that arena. The place is, appropriately, called Mr. Barbeque. It wasn’t far from the ballpark, and I enjoyed a platter of ribs (the meat literally fell off the bones) and what they call the chop (fairly finely chopped pork). Good thing, too, because the food at the park was ho hum, but the prices were big league.

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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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Eats, M's, Minor Leagues, Travel

Reno Aces vs. Tacoma Rainiers

Reno

After a smoky drive from Klamath Falls (much of it at and above 5,000 feet), I arrived in Reno with plenty of time to fully prepare for the evening’s game. Unfortunately, remember what I said about car trouble? Well it happened in the form of a minor fender bender – no injuries, but some mechanical issues that I’m praying will be resolved tomorrow morning with no interruption in the schedule. The folks who diagnosed the problem were incredible – got right on it, spent a good deal of time and effort, referred me to a specialist and absolutely refused to take any payment. Don’t forget that there are good people all around.

But no real baseball fan can let a little thing like a car accident get in the way of a game. So naturally, I showed up at Greater Nevada Field to see the Aces take on the Rainiers. This is the AAA Pacific Coast League, once considered a rival to the big leagues (when it was actually limited to the Pacific Coast). The Aces are affiliated with the Diamondbacks and the Rainiers with the Mariners. Some of the Rainiers starters have actually seen time with the M’s this year.

But this was names night. I first saw the best-named player in professional baseball a couple of years ago when he was up with the D’Backs in Phoenix – Socrates Brito. Here he is in right field and at the plate. (He hit a dinger just for me!)

Then there were these two Aces standing together during the national anthem. You can’t make this stuff up.

The ballpark is simply beautiful – carefully groomed and well appointed and relatively new (built in 2009), with a capacity of 9,100. Fortunately, virtually all of the third base side is in the shade, which is important when game time temperature is 98 degrees. Did I mention Heat/Humidity Tour?

And then there were eats. A variety of sausages and dogs, pot stickers and spring rolls, cheesesteak, a number of vegetarian items, including, of all things, a caprese sandwich. And one specialty I’ve never seen in a ballpark before – caramel apples! But once again, a dog bit me. I was leaning toward a “Krautdog,” but when I learned I could put kraut on my choice, it was game over. Here it is, a bacon-wrapped foot-long hot dog! (The kraut was added after the picture – and please notice that it was so big I couldn’t even get it all in the picture.) This one vaulted to number one on the all-time hot dog list.

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