Eats, Minor Leagues, Rants

River Cats vs. Isotopes

As in Sacramento vs. Albuquerque, both in the AAA Pacific Coast League, the former affiliated with the Giants and the latter with the Rockies. Another relatively cool night in the Central Valley (headed for a much more typical 100 by week’s end), 81 degrees at game time. The Isotopes are already eliminated from the playoffs, and the River Cats are sitting in first in their division.

AAA is interesting because it is the highest level of the minors, the last stop for young stars on the rise before they make the Show (some even skip AAA and go up from AA) and often populated with big leaguers that get sent down for rehab or because they hit a rough patch in the Show.

The Cats play their home games at Raley Field on the banks of the Sacramento River in West Sacramento. Unlike a lot of minor league parks, it is not named for some dear departed ball player but for the supermarket chain that bought the naming rights. The disease is seeping to ever lower levels! The stadium has a seating capacity of 14,000, which certainly outdoes the 4,000 or so at the most recent Advanced A games I’ve seen and this crowd didn’t begin to tax that capacity. It is a pretty stadium and to my surprise, the luxury boxes on the upper level seemed to be almost fully occupied.

As you can see, there is a fancy Jumbotron and another couple of electronic scoreboards that are easy for geezers like me to read. The only problem was that they went out in the bottom of the first, came back briefly an inning later, and then were in and (partially) out at intervals for the rest of the game.

Unlike the Advanced A games, here (maybe because both teams are affiliated with National League clubs), the pitchers hit for themselves. Chris Rusin, the Isotopes pitcher – who, by the way, was throwing mostly junk, not breaking 90 – drove in two runs with a clean single his first time up, but later, despite several years with the Cubs and Rockies, couldn’t manage in three attempts to lay down a bunt. Any National League pitcher should be able to bunt at any time in any count. But who cares what I think?!

This guy started out with the crew dragging the infield after the 6th inning, but ended up doing a dance and finally jumped up on the wall to entertain the crowd. The minor leagues are really about entertainment rather than baseball, though at the AAA level, there aren’t as many between-inning gimmicks as at the lower levels.

Finally, to the food. There was a pretty wide variety of sandwiches along with the usual fare. The one that caught my eye, that I’ve never seen in another park – not even at the New Orleans Baby Cakes last year – was a muffuletta sandwich. I was skeptical, so I asked the servers if it was authentic and if anyone was from N.O. who could vouch for it. One kid said he was from N.O. but claimed he’d never had a muffuletta sandwich. So I tried it. It was bad. There was a tiny container of muffuletta that was good for about a third of the sandwich, and I had to be satisfied with mustard for the remainder. A cruel hoax. Oh yes, and the prices were definitely big league.

What I said about standings at the beginning didn’t really matter because the Isotopes had the upper hand throughout and won 4-1.

So that’s it for the California Dreamin’ tour folks. I’ve enjoyed it immensely and just hope I managed to send some of the fun your way.

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Eats, Minor Leagues, Rants

Nuts vs. Jethawks

That’s the Modesto Nuts and the Lancaster Jethawks, two more teams in the California League, Advanced A. The Nuts are in the Mariners organization and the Jethawks in the Rockies system. I have no idea what a Jethawk is but according to Wikipedia, their name comes from Lancaster’s association with the aerospace industry. The Nuts are presumably named for the almonds (and maybe some other nuts) grown around Modesto.

The Nuts play their home games at John Thurman Field, opened in 1955 and renovated in 1997. It’s a tidy place with lots of bathrooms and plenty of general admission seating. The problem, as you can see, is that the third base side is in full sun till about 8 p.m. and in Modesto, that’s generally not pleasant. This game started at an unseasonably cool 87 degrees, but even with that moderate temperature (for Modesto) full sun is still too much.

When I arrived, there was a fairly loud symphony of chirping – turned out that there were about a zillion pre-pubescent girls waiting to get on to the field to demonstrate their cheerleading skills. I didn’t know cheerleading played any part in baseball outside of Japan, but sure enough, the hordes occupied foul territory before the game began to demonstrate their skills. Here they are:

Then, to my dismay, they invaded the first base grandstands where I was sitting and, having been stoked by their parents’ lax fiscal discipline into a high state of sugar frenzy, continued their jumping and shouting and generally chaotic behavior through the first few innings till the sugar wore off. By the fifth inning (after the girls and their parents had departed) the crowd was down to a reasonable 100 or so.

As we all know, the Mariners are languishing in last place in the AL West and, watching this farm team of theirs, it doesn’t look like it’s going to get better any time soon, at least not if they’re counting on guys from the minors to bail them out. First, their roster reads like a prep school yearbook. Some sample first names: Collin, Austin, Ian, Keegan, Connor . . . you get the idea. Also, the Nuts had as many starters hitting at or under the Mendoza line as the Jethawks had hitting over .300.

Once again, there was no sign on the field showing its name – just the team name behind home and on the Jumbotron. And a footnote – there was no dirt path from the dugout to the batters box, so I guess in isn’t a Cal League thing.

Some of the wannabe cheerleaders on the Jumbotron

There was a wide variety of sandwiches on offer, far more than customary in the minors, and the prices were almost, but not quite, big league. Because of the home team’s name, and because there is a limit to how many hot dogs an old man can eat, I settled for a bag of peanuts and a beer (though I doubt many peanuts are grown around here). All in all, it was a pleasant evening of baseball (after the cheerleaders left), but the Nuts got shelled (sorry, blame Jack Faust – it was his line) 6-4.

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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?

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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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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, 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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