Eats, Minor Leagues, Outfield Ads, Rants

Sonoma vs. Napa

Normally I use the team moniker rather than its city but this title is just too good to pass up – sounds like an article from the Wine Spectator on the relative merits of the special vintages of the two best known California wine regions.

But it’s about as far from fine wine as you can get. Instead, it is the Sonoma Stompers vs. the Napa Silverados, two teams from the Pacific Association, an independent league (not affiliated with any major league organization). Independent leagues come and go, but there are currently six that are considered viable. The players get paid, so they are professional, but just barely. Many live with host families and most are either high school or college players who were not drafted or signed by any major league club or guys who have played pro ball for a while, maybe even made it to the Show, but are quite unlikely to get there again but just can’t give up the game. They figure it’s better than being a bagger at the local grocery in their home town.

The reason I came to Sonoma is that two baseball quants, Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller, wrote a book published in 2016 called The Only Rule Is It Has To Work, and I finally got around to reading it this winter. They convinced the owner of the Stompers that they could use baseball analytics to turn the Stompers into league champions, and the book chronicles their efforts over one season. Like many books, it is too long (one of my pet peeves), but it is pretty entertaining, so if you’re good at skimming, I recommend it. I won’t reveal how the experiment worked out.

The Stompers, and the Pacific Association are kind of scruffy, just barely getting by, or they were before the book (more on that shortly). Guys don’t get paid enough to have their own apartment, so host families are important, as are other economies the teams must take. The P.A. is considered one of the lesser independent leagues, so these players aren’t going to be headlining in the Bigs anytime soon. All you have to do to understand this is watch a game. Lots of errors, passed balls, brain cramps and so on. The contrast with even short season A ball is evident.

Sonoma is one of those precious towns where only senior citizens with substantial bank balances can enter (exceptions to the age requirement can be made if your bank account is big enough) and they can enjoy the trendy shops, wine bars, art galleries and the like. And the Stompers have incorporated that ambience by offering such delicacies as a bacon and Brie burger ($16), Caesar salad (unadorned – $10) and a basic hot dog for $12. Oh yes, and admission to the park costs $14, the highest I’ve paid for this level of baseball. Not even minor league baseball, but seriously major league prices!

Anyway, the Stompers play their games at Arnold Field, which is also used for high school football. It features a small grandstand surrounding home plate (the outfield corners are blocked from view by the cinderblock dugouts) and some table seating along the left field line. The grandstand crowd was not more than 100, but they all seemed to know each other and at any given time, there was more visiting than baseball spectating happening there.

It was also Bark in the Park night, my second such promotion on this tour. What’s with bringing dogs to a ball game? They don’t fit conveniently in the seats, they sometimes scuffle with each other, pee in inconvenient places and don’t seem to revel in the experience very much.

I haven’t mentioned outfield ads in a while and all I can say about those at Arnold Field is that they were mostly so small as to be unreadable. The ones I could read were neither interesting nor unusual.

The Stompers came into the game leading the league, but gave up nine runs in the first three innings. They did get one solo homer, shown here just before and just after, and later got three more, back-to-back-to-back. Another feature of independent ball – the local fans (everyone except me) pass the hat for contributions to the player who hits a home run. They were going broke at this one. The Stompers scored a few more runs, but ultimately lost 10-7.

It wasn’t a pretty game. Weak pitching, poor defense and baserunning and high prices. What’s not to dislike?

Eats, Minor Leagues, Outfield Ads, Travel

Stone Crabs v. Mets

I left Miami and headed west, driving and hiking through the Everglades. That national park is different from any other I’ve seen in that it is not really, in the strict sense of the word, a tourist destination. Yes, tourists do visit, but it lacks the sort of memorable sights that most national parks feature. It is really more of an adventure destination – I doubt you’ll see much until you get further into the swamp by way of a canoe or kayak. I suspect my experience was typical for the casual visitor – egrets everywhere, but nary a gator in sight.

I stopped in Port Charlotte to see a minor league game. This part of Florida has two leagues – the Gulf Coast League (rookies, not playing yet) and the Florida State League – called Advanced A.

The home team Charlotte Stone Crabs are affiliated the Tampa Bay Rays and play their games the Rays’ spring training park, called the Charlotte Sports Park. It is fairly spacious by minor league standards and very well groomed.

On this night, there was a huge crowd of about 100 – OK maybe 200. Average age probably somewhere north of 65 (this is Florida after all!).

Speaking of that, the outfield ads contained more for health care and senior services than usual. Given the small size (including small text) of some of them and their distance from the seats, it’s hard to see that they’re terribly effective. The only one that stood out enough to qualify for the outfield ads category was this one – what the heck is a ‘bath fitter?”

The Crabs started strong against the St. Lucie Mets with three runs in the first and they didn’t let up. This laugher ended at 13-3 for the Crabs. Quite a contrast to the Marlins – Phillies contest. The Crabs feature brothers Nate and Josh Lowe, making it the first time I can remember seeing brothers on the same team.

The Stone Crabs mascot is like most, though there weren’t enough kids in the crowd to afford him the opportunity for the usual mascot shtick. You will see that his only distinctive feature is the claws.

The screens, as in most parks now, extend beyond the dugouts. That creates a problem for yours truly because it’s hard to get good pics through the screen. See the contrasting pics below. Even if I weren’t doing that, the screening makes it harder to follow the flight of the batted ball. What price safety?

It was interesting that what was a 20 second clock last year is now down to 15 seconds. That’s the time allowed the pitcher to deliver the next pitch. Again, I saw no enforcement, but the game did move along fairly quickly.

There was one puzzling enforcement incident. With a runner on first, the umpire suddenly motioned him to third. No explanation was given and I couldn’t figure it out – a double balk, maybe?

The eats were very limited, though the prices were reasonable for a minor league park. No concessionaire was going to retire on this night’s receipts. I did have a dog with cooked chopped onions, which was a new one on me, but also fairly tasteless.

Eats, Minor Leagues, Oddity, Outfield Ads

Eastlake, Ohio

Classic Park in Eastlake, Ohio is quite large for a single A team, and after attending a game there, it is obvious that the Lake County Captains, who play in that park, enjoy more support from their parent team, the nearby Cleveland Indians, than most other single A teams. It has a seating capacity of nearly 7,300 and a natural grass field. Very nice.
Given the name of the team, it is not surprising that the park bears a nautical theme. The suites are dubbed the “Officers Club” and the toilets are on the Poop Deck. I could go on, but you get the idea.
To add to the ambience (this was “Heros Weekend”), the team wore jerseys covered in pictures of folks from the area who have served or are serving in the military. From even a short distance, they looked like camouflage outfits.

Then, to top it off, they had two “parades” before the game started. The first was graduates of a special reading program – there were three little kids. But the real attraction was about 60 motorcycles, many bearing hefty operators wearing leather vests, who rode around the warning track, parked in front of the dugouts and behind home plate, and. milled around until leaving just before the game started. Not sure how bikers and soldiers (and readers!) end up in the same show, but there you go.

On this very pleasant evening, the Captains hosted the Bowling Green Hot Rods, but it wasn’t much of a contest. The Captains’ hitting and defense were both superior, leading to a lopsided victory.
There was a good variety of food on offer at quite reasonable prices. A regular hot dog was $3.50 and my bratwurst (with onions and peppers) was just $6. Plus, they not only had the usual condiments, but some specialty mustards and, believe it or not, my favorite – Frank’s hot sauce.
In the fourth inning, a sharply hit foul ball found a not sufficiently alert fan and she was carried out on a stretcher after about a 20 minute game delay. A reminder of the dangers of the game.
Finally, I am back in the minors and thus have increased the chances of some strange outfield ads. This one struck me, given the not-too-distant history of the game, as wildly inappropriate. What sort of drugs? Approved by MLB? Really?

Eats, Minor Leagues, Outfield Ads, Travel

Colorado Springs

I am clearly insane.

When it became clear that an early game in Omaha was not going to happen, I ran out of steam and stopped in Fort Dodge, Iowa for the night.  After getting settled there, the insanity descended and I somehow concluded that it would make sense to go to Colorado the next day, since Omaha was not far enough along to make for an easy following day’s drive and there wasn’t any baseball between there and Colorado.  Besides, that would give me the day in the Denver area to goof off, get ready for the Rockies game and mentally prepare for the long two-day drive home.

Good plan, right?  What I failed to consider was the distance between Fort Dodge and Colorado Springs, which I discovered – the hard way – is about 720 miles.  And that’s taking several diagonal “short cuts” (one of which was closed for construction  – I either didn’t see or ignored signs, but it was interesting to be the only non-construction vehicle on new pavement for several miles) that shaved some miles off the more common right angle roads in Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas.  The early part of that drive was through a frightening thunderstorm with rain, the likes of which I have never seen.

But, thanks to gaining an hour going from Central to Mountain time, I made it, just in time for the first pitch at Security Service Stadium, on the eastern edge of Colorado Springs.  This stadium is interesting because it is located high above the city (though not with any view of the mountains) at 6531 feet, making it the highest baseball stadium in the country.  Unlike any others on this trip, it is named after a local credit union, a long-time sponsor.  And it isn’t very big.  The seats don’t go much beyond the bases and the outfield wall (based on the sound of several hits bouncing off it) are insubstantial plywood. Unlike other minor league parks, the screen didn’t even reach the dugouts, covering only a small area right behind home plate.  Oh yes, and the crowd was small, not more than 300-400.

The Colorado Sky Sox (Milwaukee Brewers affiliate) took on the visiting Oklahoma City Dodgers (I’ll let you guess the affiliation) in this Pacific Coast League (AAA) matchup.  The thin air and less than stellar pitching made for lots of long fly balls, including several home runs.  The Sox won 9-4 after falling behind early, slowly chipping away until a big rally in the 8th, but, despite all that offense and several pitching changes, the game took just over 2 1/2 hours.  Apparently because both teams are National League affiliates, there was no DH.

The picture below shows several items of note: 1) the sparse crowd; 2) seats ending just past third base; 3) grassy slope in place of left field bleachers; 4) 20 second pitcher clock.  Once again, as in Albuqurque, there was no obvious enforcement of the pitcher clock, but the game did move quickly.


At long last, another outfield ad.  This one was so good (when you think about it) that I had to take a picture.  Would you want to bat against a pitcher who needed an eye doctor?


And then there’s food.  Or not.  Very limited menu (I chose nachos and got out-of-the-bag chips slathered with liquid velveeta and some other allegedly “Mexican” pre-processed condiments) and of course, Coors beer.  Not exciting, except for the fact that I paid big league prices.

And another thing.  John Nebel pointed out that I failed to mention the most distinctive offering in Detroit.  Apparently, the thought of it with the certain ensuing midnight heartburn so traumatized me that I completely blocked it from my mind – fried baloney sandwich!

Eats, Major Leagues, Outfield Ads


Tom headed home to Oregon and the kids went home to New York, where I will rejoin them for the Hall of Fame induction ceremony. So I took a solo drive southeast from Chicago, through the green fields of Indiana (did I mention corn?) to the Queen City, Cincinnati, to watch the Reds take on the Diamondbacks at the Great American Ball Park.

That wouldn’t be such a bad name if you could avoid knowing that the name was purchased by the insurance company located right behind it. GABP replaced what was once Riverfront Stadium, and it is located right on the banks of the Ohio River. If the game isn’t engaging, you can watch boat traffic on the river.

I couldn’t face more nitrite-laced pork products, so I opted, sadly, for a pre-packaged chicken Caesar salad, which did the trick, albeit without baseball tradition or the prospect of midnight heartburn. There was chili available – first time I’ve seen that. The prices were generally a little higher than in Chicago and lower than KC. They also had custom hand-dipped ice cream bars with a choice of coatings. Classy.
It was cooler than the past few evenings and no rain even threatened. Both teams began as though they were suffering from heat stroke, however, with both pitchers giving up home runs and walks. The storied Reds, one of if not the oldest franchise in the Majors, settled down to win it 6-2.
Although it was not technically on an outfield wall (an electronic border sign), so far the best in the Majors: “Eat. Spit. Be Happy.” An ad for David Sunflower seeds.
Oh yes, the mysterious circles near the base paths at White Sox field – according to Dave Moore, they are a holdover from tobacco chewing days. Players could spit in the circle with impunity, but not elsewhere. I don’t know if he’s right, but it’s such a good answer, I’m going with it.

Eats, History, Minor Leagues, Outfield Ads


We faced a dilemma this morning: stay in St. Louis and hope the rain would stop in time for the make-up 1:15 game, first of a double header or head north and take in a minor league game and some history on the way to Chicago.  After some back and forth, we decided (with pilot Tom consulting the weather radar) to leave, which we did in a downpour.  We later questioned our decision, since that game did go forward and so did the second, and the Cards won them both.  Theoretically, we could have watched both (or at least most of the second), got up early, done the Lincoln tour and still made it to Chicago, but theory and practice don’t always mesh.

So we drove north, through the rain for a good while, and stopped in Springfield, Illinois, the principal adult home of our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln.  It is maintained and operated by the National Park Service and we took a tour.  It is the only home Lincoln ever owned and you can read more about it here.  It was interesting and Lincoln is a source of endless fascination.

Street View

Living Room

From Springfield and history, we returned to the land of baseball, stopping in Normal (could there be a better name?!) Illinois to watch the Normal Cornbelters (right up there with the Wichita Wingnuts for best minor league team name) play the Schaumburg Illinois Boomers.  Both are part of the Frontier League, another of the independent leagues with some interesting rules about recruiting their players, the mix of “veterans” and rookies and so forth.  Turns out their last game was also rained out so we got the treat of a double header.

Walking into the Corn Crib stadium, by far the best stadium name encountered yet, you are greeted by a monster farm implement of some sort and by the charming field name.

Since we hadn’t eaten at the ballpark for a couple of days, we decided we should here, especially since we were told the folks in charge smoked their own meat right at the stadium.  We tried both the pulled pork and brisket and both were terrible.  They may have been smoked at the stadium, but, if so, it was some time last month. I told someone I wasn’t eating barbecue after Missouri and God smote me for my lie.   The macaroni and cheese was heavy and by both appearance and taste, was made with velveeta.

Gut Bomb

On the other hand, the featured “two for one” item of the night was roasted corn on the cob and, as you would expect in the Midwest, it was fabulous.  The DeStihl Weissenheimer (wheat) beer was also very good.

The baseball, not so much.  It wasn’t terrible, and the evening was quite pleasant, but don’t bet on any of these guys starring for the Cubs anytime soon.  The field was also entirely artificial turf, and not very good turf at that.  The stands would hold a few thousand, but there were only about 200 souls in attendance.  Surprisingly, despite its modest scale, the stadium sports several suites at the concourse level.  We heard frequently from the public address announcer that “dogs are welcome on Wednesdays” but none bothered to show up.  Another feature not seen elsewhere, the Cornbelters dancers.  Their performances were extremely brief.

Cornbelters dancers rushing to the field

Although it was not an outfield ad, this advertisement ranks right up there with the best.

The public address announcer was loud and the talk or music nearly constant.  We had field-level front row seats, and here on the prairie, it would have been nice to be able to enjoy the sounds of the game.  Silence seems to be anathema at public events.  It may be the greatest fear of the American people.

It’s about the game, friends.

Minor Leagues, Oddity, Outfield Ads, Travel


Siri lies! It is much further from Albuquerque to Wichita than she says.  That, and the added hour for crossing into the Central Time Zone made for a just slightly tardy arrival at Lawrence Dumont Stadium, where the Wichita Wingnuts (slogan – Go Nuts) play their home games.

The day’s journey highlighted a couple important points.  First, most of us live in cities and don’t think much about how vast this country is, especially the West.  There are great swathes that are simply uninhabited.  To put it in technological terms, I’m confident that the majority of the miles I’ve covered are in areas without cell phone service.


Second, the last part of the trip re-affirmed the startling topographical fact – Kansas is flat!  And windy!  And though the Midwest is not uninhabited, most of the land is planted in crops, not people.  Oh yes, and the corn is not yet as high as an elephant’s eye.

Speaking of Kansas, there were two interesting quirks.  First, the main drag (US 54) through Liberal, Kansas, a small town on the Oklahoma border, is called Pancake Boulevard.  I was unaware of the connection between liberals (what else could that name refer to?) and the beloved breakfast confection.  Second, as I drove through Greensburg, Kansas, I was confronted with a sign that simply read “I’d Turn Back if I Were You.”  (It advertised no product or service.). Clearly, the author of that warning is not a baseball fan.

And now, to the game.  The Wingnuts played the Sioux Falls Canaries (both intimidating names, right?) on a warm but pleasant evening.  Both are part of the  American Association, an independent league with a long history of being all over the minor league map, from Triple A to non-existent.

The guys playing at this level are older than most minor leaguers on average, because they’ve been scuffling around for a good while.  Some have been to the majors and didn’t last or got injured or traded or simply lost in the shuffle.  They haven’t yet given up the dream, but we won’t see them in the Show again anytime soon.  Their play was at times brilliant but on the whole sloppy and the 10-2 final score in favor of the Wingnuts illustrates the lack of defensive prowess.


The Nuts are managed by Pete Rose, Jr., whom I ordinarily wouldn’t pick on, but he has recently joined his (in)famous father in criticizing Ichiro as he approaches the 3000 hit mark.  Some have mentioned that, if his hits in Japan were counted, he’d surpass Rose Sr. on the all-time hits list.  Both Roses  said that was ridiculous, and Ichiro diplomatically avoided the fight, but that didn’t make me like either Rose any better.

Some observations about Lawrence Dumont Stadium: its surface is entirely artificial (except for the pitcher’s mound), which makes a slide into second base more closely resemble a melee around the goal in a hockey game; its screen covers only the immediate area behind home – not even the dugout area is included; an ad by Wichita Railway Services for “Freight Car Parts” – who knew there’d be a market for those at the ballpark?

Finally, the bat boy/girl (though I have yet to see a bat girl on this trip).  Sometimes mistakenly referred to as the ball boy (this is the term used in tennis), the bat boy deals with both balls and bats and plays an important function in keeping the game moving.  Think about how much longer games would be if players and umpires had to do all that work of retrieving balls and bats.