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.

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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.

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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!).

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Eats, Major Leagues, Oddity

Red Sox vs. Indians

My wife and I are “back East” visiting friends and relatives and, wonder of wonders, managed to find the Red Sox at home on a day we were in Boston. The only issue was whether we could get tickets.

To avoid the hassle of StubHub or Ticketmaster, we decided to test my theory that you can always get a ticket to a regular season game in any big league park. When we got to Fenway, I confess I had a moment or two of doubt, because the line for same day tickets was long and moving slow. We took our place in line and figured if we didn’t get in, there would be plenty of other diversions in nearby Boston, so the tension was not crippling.

When we finally got to the ticket window, I asked for two seats, unobstructed. (Those who have been to Fenway know that there are seats right behind a pole [in reality, a good-sized steel I-beam] and only those are labeled “obstructed.”) The ticket agent smiled (he knew a hick from the hinterlands when he saw one) and said he had some tickets right behind home plate that are reserved for players wives and, though he did say there were poles, assured me that the seats were unobstructed. Here’s our view – I’ll let you be the judge.

I can’t (or at least shouldn’t) complain, since it was a sell-out crowd of (mostly) rabid Red Sox fans and there we were, on a beautiful day watching two good teams. What could be better? (I will say we didn’t see anyone who looked like a player’s wife!)

Despite the fact that the Red Sox are the defending world champions, the only proper way to begin is to pay homage to the oldest big league stadium, Fenway Park.

Not only is it the oldest, it is also one of the smallest and has some interesting quirks. First, the dugouts are further down the first and third base lines than in any other park, starting almost at the bag. Second there are “spitting circles” which I’ve seen in only one other stadium, “new” Comisky, or, as it’s known this week, Guaranteed Rate Field. You may recall that I was puzzled by these (since they are clearly not on-deck circles [Fenway has no on-deck circles]). When I asked about this three years ago, Dave Moore very authoritatively said that they were intended for use by players who chew tobacco as a place where they could spit the juice with impunity. I don’t know if he’s right, but it’s such a good story that I’m behind it 100 percent.

Mookie Betts in the non-existent on-deck “circle” near the “spitting” circle

Another feature that is a bit different at Fenway is the batter’s eye, the dark area on the center field wall that provides the background for the ball coming out of the pitcher’s hand so that the batter can better see it. Fenway’s is sloped and triangular.

The Fenway Batter’s Eye

Rick Porcello pitched for Boston and it looked like he wouldn’t make it through the first (a mound visit in the first inning is never a good sign). He gave up two runs and was lucky it wasn’t more. But, characteristically, Boston kept plugging, eventually tying the score and then, in the fifth, cut loose with six runs, adding three more later to finish the game on top 12-5 behind two solo dingers by J. D. Martinez and another by Sandy Leon.

The most unusual aspect of the game came when Cleveland brought in it’s first reliever, Oliver Perez. Before he could get started, he knelt and took off his shoes, gave them to an equipment guy and then strolled the mound in his stocking feet until a new pair could be found. We later learned he had broken a toe cleat while “grooming” the mound. It didn’t help – he got shelled.

Finally, the eats. Modest and conventional offerings for the most part, but the Fenway Frank, at $5.50, is the cheapest big league hot dog I’ve found. It ain’t fancy, but it also wasn’t too bad.

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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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