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, History, Minor Leagues, Oddity, Travel

Biscuits vs. Generals

There was no sign of the previous night’s storm when we left New Orleans, headed east and north to Montgomery. Despite the fact that we skirted the Louisiana and Mississippi coastline, we rarely saw the ocean. Instead, it was mostly miles of kudzu.

When we arrived in Montgomery, we went first to the state Capitol, the focal point of so much of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s.

Next came the Legacy Museum, which opened in April. It was conceived and built by Bryan Stevenson, a truly remarkable man I had the pleasure of meeting and the honor of sharing a podium with several years ago at an ABA conference when I was working on a death penalty case. Bryan has made a career of such work through the organization he founded here in Montgomery, Equal Justice Initiative. If you want a real flavor of his genius, read his book, Just Mercy. I highly recommend it. The museum is almost overwhelming it is so powerful a portrait of slavery and its legacy. If you get anywhere near this part of the country, be sure to stop. We will go to the Memorial tomorrow. You can see pictures of it on the website.

Finally, the ball game. Well, almost. On the way to the ballpark, we first smelled, then saw Dreamland Barbeque. We only had 30 minutes, so we asked if we could get some food to take to the game. They told us we wouldn’t be allowed to take their food into the park, but after telling us the ridiculous prices for not-very-good ballpark food, they guaranteed us they could feed us and get us out their door in time for the first pitch. They did, and it was really, really good. Pulled pork and sausage and an unusual BBQ sauce that was not sweet, but had a nice piquancy that really enhanced the meat. Add mac and cheese and slaw and we were happy, to say the least.

The game featured the home town Montgomery Biscuits hosting the Jackson (Tenn.) Generals. The Biscuits are affiliated with the Tampa Bay Rays and the Generals with the Diamondbacks in the AA Southern League. The Biscuits ballpark is called Riverwalk Stadium (though there is not a single indication of the name anywhere on the premises) and it is next to the Alabama River, though the river can’t be seen from the park (only railroad tracks). That’s fitting, since the stadium is a refurbished train station. It is quite lovely, and one of the locals told us it is consistently voted one of the top minor league stadiums in the country.

Game time temperature: 91 degrees. And, to my chagrin, they have the cursed Chick-fil-A foul poles, though the lettering on these was black, so one of my complaints vanished. (The violation of baseball propriety still stands!)

Though we didn’t partake, some of the culinary offerings were regional and eponymous.

We did indulge in one offering – a brownie sundae – made with chocolate ice cream. I gave away the cherry (and maybe took a bite of the brownie) before I remembered to take the picture, but it was good, especially on a hot night.

Montgomery was just one game out of first in their division coming into the game, with the Generals trailing them by a game. This game was tight and well played, with the Generals eking out a 3-2 victory. The Biscuits, in their game program, featured Nate Lowe, who was recently promoted from Single A Port Charlotte, where I saw him play (with his brother Josh) in May during my Florida tour.

Nate Lowe

The Biscuits mascot was a puzzle. Their team gear features a smiling biscuit, but the mascot is called “Big Mo” for no apparent reason. It looks to some like a rusty brown elephant, to others like an anteater or maybe an aardvark. One fan said it was a “biscuit eating beast.”

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Eats, Minor Leagues, Oddity

Baby Cakes vs. Rainiers

There was no particular reason to come to New Orleans, but given the general route of the trip, it seemed necessary to stop in to see the most ridiculously named team in all of baseball. That name came about because some of the high sheriffs of the AAA affiliate of the Marlins decided to hold a public contest to rename the team that for years had been known as the Zephyrs (a pretty cool name, if you ask me). The winner of that contest last year was “Baby Cakes” and now they have to live with it. It was not without controversy. See https://protect-us.mimecast.com/s/DnIwCERPWJf6mEJ3TNfxmD?domain=theadvocate.com

The ballpark is now apparently known as the “Shrine on Airline,” but you couldn’t tell that by looking around. Like the team, it used to be called Zephyr Park. The name is nowhere to be found. For AAA ball, it isn’t a particularly impressive and the crowd was surprisingly small, perhaps because game-time temperature was 93 degrees and perhaps the ‘Cakes (as they’re called) are last in their division.

Here’s the only baseball-related name to be found in the stadium.

Speaking of names, some of the ‘Cakes swag bears the letters NOLA (for New Orleans, La. – get it?) and their catcher bears the name Austin Nola. Wonder if that’s how he got on the team?

Nola

The theme for the game was Harry Potter Night, and it came replete with owl and several silly contests, mostly for kids. It ended on what seemed to me to be an appropriate note, though I know nothing about Harry Potter. More on that later.

Apparently Chick-fil-A has invaded the South because the foul poles here, just as in Arlington and Houston, bore their ads. Ugh!

The ‘Cakes put on an offensive show in the third. With two out, a man on they hit, consecutively, a triple, double and home run to score five. As some light rain started, Tacoma (the RAINiers!) rallied in the seventh to score three, just before the game was called on account of some very dramatic lightning, thunder and torrential rain that continued for well over an hour. We didn’t wait for the obvious (the game ended in the 7th at 5-3) but left to find flooded streets and slow going back to our hotel. See what I mean about Harry Potter?

We were looking forward to some authentic N. O. food at the ballpark and were encouraged to see po’ boys and jambalaya on the menu. We chose the latter (along with the not-so-local Leinenkugel’s summer shandy). It had some chicken, very little sausage, forgettable seasoning and a somewhat dry texture. I was disappointed enough that I had to finish it off with a dog.

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Eats, M's, Minor Leagues, Oddity, Rants

Hillsboro vs. Spokane

It is a bit ironic that the Spokane Single A team is affiliated with the Texas Rangers.  Why?  Because their moniker is “Indians.”  Do you suppose, in the mythology of the Old West, the Rangers chased the Indians all the way to Spokane?  Maybe so, and maybe the resultant fatigue explains the Rangers last place standing in the AL West.

But on to more relevant matters – like food.  New this year (I think) is a mac & cheese hot dog.  Add a little hot sauce and you’ve got a (baseball) gourmet delight.

Ron Tonkin Field is a nice venue, but for one thing – artificial turf.  Come on, people.  This is professional baseball.  Yes, I know Tampa and Toronto have artificial turf, but this is Oregon – green is everywhere, but green plastic just doesn’t cut it.  The ball bounces too high, sliding is risky at best and, most importantly, uniforms don’t get dirty.

Ugly, ain’t it?

The game was never in doubt.  The Hops scored early and added on with a mammoth solo dinger by Francis Martinez (it cleared the 30 foot screen above the right field fence) and a later three-run shot by Jake McCarthy.

Here’s a shot of Martinez in his defensive position at first base. He’s a big guy, so in one way it wasn’t surprising to see him unleash that blast, but the program lists him as a 2013 Free Agent and I’m guessing that his .182 BA (substantially below his weight) is the reason he’s still playing Single A ball.

All this on the day when former Hop Brad Keller started for the Kansas City Royals against the Mariners.  He performed well, but the M’s won their seventh straight, 1-0.

One other little irrelevance – this picture doesn’t show it very well, but the Hops Canadian catcher (his music when coming to bat was “O Canada”) most times took a one-knee down receiving position. Not like Tony Pena, who stretched one leg out straight and was clear down on the ground sometimes, but quirky nonetheless.

This was a family outing for us and after the game, the little ones got to run around the bases.  We can only hope they didn’t catch anything lethal from that artificial turf.

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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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