Long Fly Ball

A sporadically updated chronicle of Dave Becker's summer 2005 ramble among Minor League ballparks.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

John O'Donnell Stadium Posted by Hello

John O'Donnell Stadium Posted by Hello

Down by the river

DAVENPORT, Iowa -- Davenport’s John O’Donnell Stadium, home of the Swing of Quad Cities (A, Midwest League), shows up on a lot of roadtrippers’ 10 best lists, and it’s easy to see why. The place is the Minor League equivalent of Pittsburgh or San Francisco, making splendid use of a waterfront setting.

The outfield wall is about 10 yards from the banks of the Mississippi, and almost directly underneath a graceful old bridge. Almost every seat has a nice view of the barges that creep up and down the river, and the first base side gets a fine view of the downtown skyline, such as it is. On a balmy summer evening, with a freight train rumbling on the other side of the stadium, it feels about as gloriously American as you can get. Stockton, you should’ve taken some notes form these folks on how to build a single-A size riverfront stadium. (The location does turn out to be a bit of inconvenience, however, when the Mississippi has one of its increasingly common 100-year floods.)

Besides, you gotta leave a team that has raffles so they can raise money to feed the players on long road trips.

Couple of quirks: It seems odd that they don’t make any promotional hay from home runs hit into the river, an event that seems to happen pretty regularly. And why, oh why, did they change the name from the colorful and regionally distinctive River Bandits to an impossible-to-visualize moniker that supposedly capitalizes on the city’s rich jazz and blues heritage. (Me, neither, and I used to write about music for a living.)

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Heroes and psychoes

KANSAS CITY -- No game tonight, but I did spend an illuminating and inspiring few hours at the Negro League Museum here. Can't think of much to say that Ken Burns hasn't already said a few dozen times, but it is amazing the extent of business folly that went into supporting organized racism in the majors. Think of all those tickets the big league owners let dribble away.

Speaking of racism and old-time baseball, I just finished listening to an audio version of Al Stump's excellent biography of Ty Cobb. Lord, what a nut job. Maybe that should be the new excuse for the steroid pariahs: "At least I didn't almost beat someone to death in a bigoted rage."

Monday, June 27, 2005

Steak and bake (Lord, it's hot here)

KANSAS CITY -- Another nice thing about independent leagues is that they tend to believe in free parking and free programs. The program for the Kansas City T-Bones, of the independent Northern League, included this intriguing piece of intelligence in a discussion of personnel changes among the rival St. Paul Saints: “Also gone is power-hitting third baseman Lou Lucca, who has played in just two games in the Western Hemisphere this season.” Entire novels have been written with less of a premise…

Community America Ballpark, home of the T-Bones, is another recent-vintage suburban park. It’s set in a developing commercial area on the Kansas side of KC, between a racing track and a Cabela’s. (Which reminds me of one of my new theories of regionalism: You know you’re in Middle America when you hear “bass” frequently used as a verb, as in, “We gonna get us a boat to go bassin’.”

But I liked the T-Bones and their digs, which had a hard-to-define Midwestern charm. Maybe it was the pie-eating contest between innings. Or that their manager is nicknamed “Dirty” Al. I was disappointed, however, that the between innings tunes included nothing by T-Bone Walker or Neil Young’s "T-Bone."

Forgot my camera, so no pictures tonight.

And never mind the previous Bob Dylan/Willie Nelson kvetch. Now Def Leppard is following me...

Sunday, June 26, 2005

GMC Stadium

Declaration of independents

ST. LOUIS (approximately) – Well, there’s really not much to say about GMC Stadium in Sauget, Ill., (pronounced “as close to East St. Louis as someone like you is ever gonna get”), home of the Gateway Grizzlies of the independent Frontier League. It’s a pleasant enough 21st century ballpark, set in the middle of beanfields and warehouses, with a nice view of the freeway and some concessionary quirks like real margaritas from a Chevy’s booth. But blindfold me and I’d have a hard time telling it from any other mid-level park built in the last five years.

So instead, seeing as this is the beginning of a string of independent league games for me, I’ll mention some of the nice things about unaffiliated minor league ball.

* The Major League teams don’t control it, so teams can locate on the outskirts of large urban areas with Major League teams that otherwise wouldn’t brook any threat to their turnstiles. With Major League teams increasing turning to spiffy new downtown ballparks, this gives a welcome outlet to folks who live in the ‘burbs.

* You get to watch players on their way down as well their way up, including older guys who may have had a few marginal years in the majors or AAA ball and want to squeeze out one or two more years of playing before they decide what kind of sales job they might be OK at.

* With no purpose but to serve the fans, you’ll often find a stronger community connection among independent teams. Teams that don’t build community ties tend to bounce around a lot. The Frontier League’s Kalamazoo, Mich., team, for instance, went to London, Ontario, and back to Kalamazoo within the space of three years.

One other thing. I’m getting an eerie feeling that I’m being followed. Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson are doing a tour using Minor League parks as venues, and every game I go to, it turns out they’re going to be there in four or five days. I figure they’re due to finally catch up with me around Lansing.

Friday, June 24, 2005

AutoZone Park Posted by Hello

AutoZone Park Posted by Hello

AutoZone Park Posted by Hello

Home of Elvis and the ancient Greeks

MEMPHIS-- Talk about your study in contrasts. While Little Rock looks like it spends a good $20 a year or so on improvements for Ray Winder Field, Memphis appears to have blown a sum roughly equivalent to the North Korean defense budget on its new AutoZone Park, home of the Memphis Redbirds (AAA, Pacific Coast League).

And despite my general skepticism about new ballparks, I gotta admit that you can accomplish a lot with vast sums of money. The park itself is a nice brick and steel structure of size that seems more appropriate to the majors. They did a marvelous job of carving out a chunk of as-yet not totally rehabbed downtown to site the park, achieving nice outfield views of tall and old buildings. There’s even a little Wrigley Field thing going on, with balconies of new apartments overlooking the park attracting their own loyal fans. (We had great fun watching firefighters respond to an out-of-control sprinkler at one apartment.)

No carnival junk to mar the experience, easy to get to via public transit (the funky Main Street folly), and all the drunks never manage to stagger away from Beale Street, so the crowd stay pretty civil. And they’ve got cheerleaders, my first T&A experience in professional baseball.
The Redbirds also put on the most exciting game I’ve experienced this season, racking up more by-a-hair singles in the sixth inning than I’ve ever seen.

Ray Winder Field Posted by Hello

Ray Winder Field Posted by Hello

Thursday, June 23, 2005

I saw Arkansas

LITTLE ROCK--It's not exactly Fenway Park in terms of character, but 72-year-old Ray Winder Field, home of the Arkansas Travelers (AA, Texas League) is one of the older Minor League parks still in use. And it's a charmer, thanks to minimal investment in upgrades.

There's not a speck of air conditioning or anything remotely like a luxury box in the joint. Any relief from the Southern heat has to come from the overhead fans mounnted on the roof. They've got a real organist, who really knows how to rock on "Delta Dawn." And if any Travelers player hits a home run to the Dagwood sandwich sign, it's free lunch meat for everyone!

Of course, the city and Major League baseball consider the place an embarassment (What?! No swimming pool? No faux-brick exterior? No idiotic mascot?) and are busy with plans to build a new park north of Little Rock or renovate the life out of Ray Winder. Sigh...

On a side note, the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock is one inspiring place. Although they seem to be under some impression that Democrats are allowed to be elected to high national office.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

HoHoKam Park Posted by Hello

HoHoKam Park Posted by Hello

The Golden rule

PHOENIX—As semi-promised, I took a couple of hours off from family matters to experience Golden League baseball, courtesy of the Mesa Miners. For those of you who don’t follow such minutiae, the Golden League (motto: Yes, it really is professional baseball) is a new independent league co-owned by game show host Pat Sajak. The league owns each team, which currently adds up to eight, four in California, three in Arizona and one traveling Japanese squad. (?!) All play in in college or spring training parks that otherwise would sit empty through the summer, an arrangement that no doubt makes financial sense for the team but ensures there are way more empty seats than fans.

In the case of the Miners, those empty seats are at HoHoKam Field, spring home of the Cubs. Thursday’s game attracted an audience that, in my newspapering days, I would have kindly described as “several fans.”

HoHoKam Park itself is a drab cinder-block-and-metal affair in a neighborhood whose main distinguishing feature is a tidy little cemetery across the street from the park. It is adjacent to the Mesa Fire Dept. training facility, though, which means you get a nice sunset fountain effect behind left field if they’re practicing ladder work.

Other positive things I can say about the Miners:

* They still do the dizzy bat race, a between-innings contest most other teams seem to have been lawyered away from.

* No annoying scouts to block your view with radar guns.

* They have a player named Cleatus.

By the way, the Golden League means that Arizona now has five levels of professional ball: the Major League Diamondbacks; Fall League, a sort of AAA conditioning program; the AAA Tucson Sidewinders; Golden League, with a level of play I’d rate around single-A; and the rookie Arizona League, the best-kept secret in professional baseball.

Worried of stealing attendance from the Diamondbacks, the powers that be have decreed that the Arizona League be strictly a training program, with no provisions for spectators. They play early in the morning ( to avoid heat prostration) at bare-bones muni fields. Any fans sit on whatever patch of grass they can find. And there’s not a scrap of information regarding who’s playing. I caught a Scottsdale Giants game a few years ago, and I’ll never forget the sight of a coach arguing with a passerby about who got to keep the home run ball the guy’s dog had just chased down.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Isotopes Park, Albuquerque Posted by Hello

Rain, rain, go away. Posted by Hello

Get your kicks on Route 66

ALBUQUERQUE—Things that make Isotopes Park one of Top 5 ballparks I’ve ever visited:

* There’s a strong, palpable spirit of community support behind the team. Saturday’s game was a sell-out, the first time I’ve witnessed that in the minors. I only managed to snag a lawn ticket by waiting while the ticketing crew apparently recalculated average body mass index for its fans and decided they could squeeze a few more bodies in behind the outfield. (The crowd thinned out quite a bit when the lurking thunderstorm you see in the picture kicked into gear in the second inning, with a steady rain just light enough to keep playing. I Charlie Browned it through the middle of the sixth.)

* The community thing goes both ways. When baseball returned to Albuquerque a few years ago, the team owners let fans decide the team’s name. They went for clever combination of local heritage and a cute prank by giving it the same name as the Springfield team in “The Simpsons.” (In one episode, the slumping team threatens to relocate to Albuquerque.) Good thing folks here didn’t take a shine to Springfield’s rivals, the Shellbyvillians.

* It’s named Isotopes Park, not Local Employer Who Paid Us A Lot of Money Park.

* They have a real organist.

* It’s easy to get to via Route 66, which maintains a lot of its neon kitsch appeal.

* The park itself is a lightly refurbished 1960s arena, not a cookie-cutter 1990s park trying to look like it was designed 70 years ago.

About the only negative I can think of is that the park only has one outlet for Mexican food, a glaring inadequacy in New Mexico that led to horrendous lines Saturday. Which makes me smarter than the average bear for having two superb chile rellenos at Monroe’s just before the game.

Liked it so much I’m going back tomorrow, after which I’ll be taking a break from baseball for a week or so as I attend to family matters. Although I may try to sneak in a game by one of the Arizona franchises in Pat Sajak’s new independent Golden League.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Security Service Field, Colo. Springs Posted by Hello

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Rocky Mountain low

COLORADO SPRINGS--It's not like Colorado Springs doesn't have some scenery to work with. Rivers, lakes, Pikes Peak and the whole Rocky Mountains in your backyard thing?

So what does the melodiously named Security Service Park here offer for an outfield backdrop? Housing subdivisions. Dozens of ‘em, each with hundred of identical huge house stretching across the landscape as far as you can see. But if you crane your neck from the far end of the bleachers, you can also see a shopping mall.

OK, so I was kind of cranky after hours of dealing with Denver metro traffic, intermitten rain and Colorado Springs sprawl. But I couldn’t find much to like about the home of the Sky Sox (Pacific Coast League), who played the Sacramento Rivercats on cold, drizzly night that at least never erupted into the expected the thunderstorms. The park itself is a bland new concrete bunker, there’s nothing to look at when the game slows down and they don’t even have the correctness to make the mascot a walking sock. (Some doglike critter, instead.)

But on the “if you can’t say something nice” side, they do have a good selection of local brews, including a crisp Belgian white.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Franklin Covey Field Posted by Hello

Marching unto Zion

SALT LAKE CITY – Now this is more like it. Franklin Covey Field, home of the SLC Stingers (Pacific Coast League, Class AAA), is a fairly plain brick-and-metal two-deck park. But it’s marvelously situated, with the outfield fence framing miles of snow-frosted mountains. It’s also situated in a neighborhood that reminds of Wallace Stegner’s descriptions of his bootlegging father’s final days in “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.”

Solid ball, something pretty to look at when there’s nothing happening on the field, and cheap to boot. I paid $5 for a third-row seat (to the whitest scalper I’ve ever seen.)

Besides the magnificent scenery, local color means pastrami burgers, which I didn’t have the guts or excess Lipitor to try.
As for Salt Lake City as a whole, I’m reminded of Lawrence’s explanation in “Lawrence of Arabia” for why he likes the desert so much: “It’s very clean there.” The major Mormon buildings of Temple Square are an explosion of the church’s, ummmm, unique aesthetic style, all the white stone nicely counterpointed by the hundreds of aggressively helpful men in black suits. The easy listening/Mormon Tabernacle Choir radio station adds a nicely surreal touch to driving through town, too.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Casey strikes out

Day 1, in which I perform the remarkable act of having vegetables for lunch at a ballpark.

For sentimental reasons, I chose to start the big trip with a game in Stockton, home of single-A California League Oakland A’s franchise the Ports. Sentimental because Stockton is ag team I’ve always liked, enough to make a pilgrimage or two every season. This is because:

A) They were an affiliate of my beloved Milwaukee Brewers for many years.

B) Stockton has the most solid claim to being the Mudville of “Casey at the Bat,” a historical tie hard to beat in California.

C) It’s easy to get to from San Francisco and there are plenty of kayaking opportunities to make it an overnight trip.

Big news this year is that the Ports have moved into a spanking new ballpark. The old one, Billy Hebert Field, was a lovable little dump set in a city park a few miles from downtown.

The new Banner Island Ballpark, or whatever they’ll call it when they sell naming rights, is on the San Joaquin River and a few blocks from “downtown.” As is the story with so many new ballparks today, building Stockton’s new field was part of an ongoing and, to my eyes, pretty whimsical downtown revitalization campaign. Sad to say, it’s going to take a lot more than this dull little facility to get downtown Stockton jumping.

For starters, city father appears to have way overestimated the scenic appeal of this stretch of the river. Or maybe not, since you can’t actually see the river from any of the seats. The only thing you get a good view of is the adjacent hockey arena and five-story parking garage under construction.

And they've obliterated all references to Mudville and Casey, whose been replaced with a generic new mascot, Splash, meant to represent the remote possibility of someone hitting a ball into the river.

With no view to speak of (please refer to Sacramento for advice on how to site a downtown riverside ballpark) about the only local color at the park is the fried asparagus concession. Tasty stuff, and a darn fine lunch with a little seasoning.

Starbucks is about to kick me out, so I’ll just note that the next stop, baseball-wise, is Salt Lake City.