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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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.

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Eats, Major Leagues, Oddity, Travel

Marlins v. Phillies

In my quest to visit all 30 major league ballparks, I had originally planned to get the two in Florida on my summer road trip. But after spending some time with the maps, it became clear that Miami was just too far to go in the time allotted. So I looked at schedules and concluded that May (not being part of hurricane season) afforded the best opportunity to cover the two in the Sunshine State.

I began the trip by flying to Key West for no good reason. Oh, I had reasons (1. As a kid I had a pen pal there [remember snail mail?]; 2. It’s the southernmost point of the continental U.S.; 3. I was curious), but none were sufficient. Key West is simply kitsch – not as concentrated as say, Wall Drug, but there is little reason for the town’s existence other than parting tourists from their dollars. Not a lot of the charm or architectural preservation you’d expect in a sleepy tropical town.

So I left and drove though the Keys to Miami. I’ve been here many times before and must say it is not one of my favorite cities, but it does have a new ballpark, so that makes it worthy of a visit.

Contrary to the modern trend, it does not bear the name of a sponsor. It is simply Marlins Park. Nor is it retro. Rather, it is futuristic, the outside resembling a sleek white spaceship more than the traditional ivy-covered brick ballpark. In fact, there isn’t one brick in sight. It was built in 2012 on the site of the old Orange Bowl and is one of the smallest parks in the Bigs.

It has a retractable roof and huge sliding windows, so rainouts, which plagued the Marlins at their old park, are non-existent. On this night, the windows were open till just before game time and then closed. The grass, however, is natural (to the extent any big league stadium grass is natural!) and perfectly groomed. In keeping with the latest trend, the protective screens extend beyond the dugouts and the Jumbotron is trapezoidal. The closed in nature of the park made the extra-loud relentless music of the p.a. system especially oppressive.

Speaking of the scoreboard, notice the new feature.

This is the result of the new rule adopted by MLB with the goal of speeding the pace of play and making games shorter. It seemed to have that effect in this game.

Another feature not seen in other parks (thank goodness!) – the monstrosity in left center which comes to life when the Marlins hit a home run. Just to be sure their ballpark is the most unusual, the Marlins built into the wall right behind home plate not one but two large aquariums (made of bulletproof glass – and, apologies – I couldn’t get a picture). I guess having fish in the wall has something to do with the name of their team. Huh?

This game didn’t hold a lot of promise. So far, the Marlins this year have simply been bad. The Phillies, by contrast, under their new manager, Gabe Kapler, are over .500 and seem to be resurgent. This pattern held through five innings as the Phils scored one and held the Marlins hitless (indeed, runnerless) through five.

In the sixth, the Marlins got a little wink from God in the form of a bloop to right that none of the three converging Phils could reach that resulted in a double with no outs. So of course, the next batter bunted (badly) and the runner on second was nailed in a rundown. Hard to say that was a baserunning error, since the whole point was to get to third making a run possible on a hit or sacrifice fly. More like a batting error.

Then Lewis Brinson gets a single, so there’s hope. But Phils pitcher Zach Eflin, no doubt under instructions from the bench, made several attempts to pick Brinson off first. As these pictures show, the initial attempts were unsuccessful, but on the last, which was called safe, a challenge overturned the call.

This, while pinch hitter Justin Bour was at the plate, just hoping to move the runner along. Once there was no runner, he did the only thing he could – launched one out of the park to even the score.

No further action till the 10th, when the Phils loaded the sacks but couldn’t score. In the bottom half, the first two Marlins made outs, then Cameron Maybin hit a stand up triple to deep center – no something you see too often. After an intentional walk, another pinch hitter, Yadiel Rivera, got his first ever walk off hit to win the game.

So, a night of very interesting baseball in front of the smallest big league crowd I can remember (officially almost 13,000, but the after-game announcement said 5,000 – I’d be surprised if it was that big).

Oh yes, the food. In a city as cosmopolitan and diverse as Miami, you’d expect a plethora of choices. Not to be. Everything seemed standardized and somehow sterile. Nothing distinctive except for one small stand offering pincho, a sort of kebab. And the prices were more than major league high.

And another thing, during the game, there was a little piece on the Jumbotron featuring Marlins players promoting “Sandlot Day” with quotes from the eponymous movie (a baseball must-see). “You’re killin’ me Smalls.”

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Travel

Nigeria

Nigeria is an enigma. It is the most populous African country and is rich in natural resources. It also harbors extreme poverty and violence. In some ways, it is two nations – the resource rich Christian south and the impoverished Muslim north.

I recently spent two weeks there in my capacity as a board member of Mercy Corps. The first week was in Abuja, the capital city, which is a rarity in Africa because it is a relatively new, planned city that doesn’t suffer from the traffic ills that plague its counterparts throughout the continent. I met with U.S. and Nigerian government officials, program staff and beneficiaries and got a sense of Mercy Corps work in the country (Nigeria is the second largest program in the Mercy Corps portfolio – after Syria).

The second week was spent mostly in Borno state in the northeast of the country, the center of the conflict with Boko Haram. I flew into Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state and home to Mercy Corps regional office for the northeast. Over 2 million people have been displaced by the conflict in Borno and Mercy Corps’ programming is focused on providing food, shelter and livelihoods for those folks, mostly through cash distributions.

While in Maiduguri, I met with Nigerian government officials who have general oversight of all NGO’s in the area. I also met the Shehu of Borno, the head of the ancient dynasty that used to rule the area. Now, he leads what is something of a parallel government, namely the Muslim religion. He has great influence with, though not outright power over, the secular government and is a big fan of Mercy Corps work in the area.

Because of the ongoing conflict, and because the government controls only about 15% of Borno state, roads are impassible without military escort, which Mercy Corps does not use. So I flew on a UN helicopter to one of the “deep field” sites at Ngala, on the Cameroon border to look at the work first hand. The first impression was of the desolation caused by Boko Haram as seen in this picture of just one of hundreds of completely destroyed villages.

Ngala itself has been decimated by the conflict, with virtually every building showing signs of gunfire and others simply flattened.

So Mercy Corps has organized “sanitation brigades” to clean debris (mostly mud) from drainage ditches and use that mud to make bricks for reconstruction of the many destroyed buildings. The workers receive a small cash stipend for their work and can sell the bricks they make.

Another program provides cash to qualified folks to enable them to buy food. Mercy Corps did a market assessment before starting any cash programming, both to insure there would be no disruption of the markets and to measure the effect of the cash infusions. That research indicates that markets have flourished as a result. This woman was one recipient of a cash grant.

We met with a group of community leaders to get their response to the situation. While they listed unmet needs, they were pleased with the work Mercy Corps has done. Note that the two women in the group sat separately.

Despite the devastation, I found this small tree and the protective barrier around it symbolic of the hope people expressed about where things are headed.

Ngala is home to two IDP (internally displaced persons) camps, one housing about 25,000 people, the other about 100,000. And now, many who were refugees (they crossed the border – mostly to Cameroon) are returning, so the needs are growing.

Besides a military base, the only real protection from Boko Haram the government has provided is a trench dug around the town (like many other towns – including Maiduguri – to make incursions more difficult. Unfortunately, the trench also limits residents’ access to their fields and other other resources.

This conflict in Borno is seen in the west as being based on religion. It is not. People there (even government officials) freely said the conflict began because of dissatisfaction with government – not providing basic services and being hugely corrupt. Mercy Corps own research bears out this observation. While religion does now play a role in the conflict, it was not the source of it.

So Nigeria should be a prosperous, conflict-free country. But until it reforms its top-down, corruption-endemic government, it will not achieve that goal.

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Travel

Wilsall, Montana

Never heard of it?  Neither had I till the lack of any baseball between Sioux Falls and Portland caused me to look for alternative diversions.  Lo and behold, Wilsall is the site of an annual rodeo, which just happened to coincide with my arrival in Livingston (gateway to Yellowstone – from the north).  So of course I had to attend.

The rodeo grounds covered more area than the rest of the town, but the setting was spectacular, with the snow-covered mountains in the background and the green hills leading down to the Yellowstone River.

I arrived just a few minutes late and the place was packed.  I had to park about three blocks away and from the area I covered, my vehicle was the only one from out of state.  Lots of families and it seemed like everyone knew each other.

But the action is the story.  The calves won the calf-roping contest, with only two out of about ten actually being lassoed.  The most exciting event was the women’s barrel racing, in which the horse and rider must circle three barrels, then race to the finish line, the winner being the one with the lowest time.

I loved watching the cutting horses and their riders who coaxed the bucking broncs, the skittish calves and even the horses whose riders jumped off to rassle a calf to the ground or tie it up after lassoing it.  Those horses and riders were as one, knowing just what to do and where to go.

A piece of America that we don’t see in the city.

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Eats, Minor Leagues, Oddity, Travel

Davenport, Iowa

We took a fairly easy drive (after getting out of St. Louis) north through the cornfields of Illinois, mostly on back roads. It is remarkable in such a populous state how few folks you see in its extreme western part.
Our destination was Davenport, Iowa where the Quad Cities River Bandits were scheduled to play in a Single A Midwestern League game against the Cedar Rapids Kernels. The Bandits are an affiliate of the Astros and the Kernels of the Twins.
When we arrived in town, we went directly to the stadium to buy our tickets and were told that there were none for sale. My jaw dropped and the clerk quickly explained that they had all been purchased by the Modern Woodmen, an insurance company whose headquarters are directly across the Mississippi River from the stadium and after which the stadium is named. The clerk said that the tickets would be given away free an hour before game time.
We were a little late for that and the parking lot was filling up fast. We stood in the ticket line only to be told to go to the gate where we would get them. The two ticket takers insisted they didn’t have tickets, but we had to and that we had to go back to the ticket window, and only after a couple of rounds of fruitless explanation that we were denied tickets there did a young lady step up (she’d been no more than five feet away during the exchange) to offer us tickets. Goofy!
The Modern Woodmen Park enjoys perhaps the most spectacular setting for a ballpark that I’ve ever seen, positioned as it is at the north end of the Centennial Bridge, right on the banks of the Mississippi. We enjoyed watching the pelicans fly up and down the river. It also had the unusual feature of a permanent ferris wheel in left field.

The Quad Cities include Bettendorf and Davenport in Iowa and Rock Island and Moline in Illinois, and there’s a fairly long history of minor league baseball in the area.
Unfortunately, a very typical Midwestern shower arrived just as the game was about to start, so it was delayed by an hour. That, coupled with the need to make tracks tomorrow and the River Bandits 5-0 lead in the fifth caused us to leave after the game was official (five innings).
We did see one player who probably won’t be with the Bandits for long. A Cuban named Yordan Alvarez was big, had an easy swing and had three hits, including a long home run, by the time we left. In style and movement, he reminded me of the young Vladimir Guerrero, but with greater plate discipline and less wasted motion.  Keep an eye out for him.
And finally, the eats. The Bandit Dog, better described as a chili cheese dog with onions, seemed the most promising, but about the only thing it is likely to deliver is late night heartburn.

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Eats, Major Leagues, Travel

St. Louis vs. Milwaukee

Our trip to St. Louis last year ended in frustration as we sat, waiting patiently, watching radar images on the Jumbotron that seemed to portray an impending deluge, yet found no confirmation in the sky over Busch Stadium.  In the end, the radar prevailed and the game was rained out.  So, of course, we had to come back.

To get there, we drove through rural western Tennessee, through a bit of Kentucky and into Illinois at Cairo.  It is ironic that I’ve been to Cairo, Egypt (pronounced “kigh row”) many times but never to Cairo, Illinois (pronounced “kay row”).  I was shocked.  In all my travels around this country, I have never seen a town so depressed.  It is seemingly one bankruptcy short of a ghost town.  At least two thirds of the businesses were boarded up and there was just nothing going on.

Busch Stadium, on the other hand, was bustling.  When we checked into our hotel, we learned that the Cards and Brewers were playing a double header (making up a prior rainout), so there was a lot of activity around the stadium when we bought our tickets.  This year, the skies were clear and the weather warm.

We also made a return visit to Pappy’s Smokehouse, a highly regarded BBQ place west of downtown.  We enjoyed it last year, but tried to go to Bogart’s, only to learn that is open just for lunch four days a week.  Go figure.  In any event, we got one full side of ribs and split it, which was more than enough for the two of us.  The ribs were superb, the sides (slaw and potato salad) adequate though not memorable, but the meal was well worth it (14 very meaty ribs for $25).

The Cards won the first game and we speculated whether the veterans would have played that game or been saved for the night game.  I would have played the old guys in the (marginally) cooler evening game, but Manager Metheny did the opposite.  Several of the younger players wore these fancy socks.

 The Cards took an early lead, the Brewers caught up and then went ahead, the Cards caught them, but lost out in the end.  Despite that, it was a good game and now Busch Stadium is authentically in the book.

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