Long Fly Ball

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

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Coming in for a landing... Posted by Picasa

Memorial Stadium (Boise) Posted by Picasa

The thing with feathers

BOISE, Idaho -- I was going to say that the most distinctive thing about Memorial Stadium, home of the Boise Hawks (Northwest League, Single A) is the pricing structure for tickets. Seats along the third base line and behind home plate cost $8. Along first base, it’s $2.

The guy at the ticket booth said it’s because first base gets the late sun, which seemed refreshingly honest compared with the pay-for-shade tactics at some stadiums, but kind of dopey. Hello? There’s this new thing called sunscreen? Might wanna check it out.

After taking my $2 seat (Hey, I prefer first base line, and I’m a sucker for a deal.) I discovered another possible reason for the discount – liberal sprinklings of bird poop from the resident osprey perched on the light pole in line with first base.

Yup, the Hawks have resident birds of prey, which club officials have had the good PR sense not to evict. Watching the big birds circle around their nest added quite of bit of visual intrigue to another typically error-ridden Single A game.
Made me wonder why the Hawks haven’t done more to promote the attraction. I imagine a Raptor Education Night, with concession stand selling some kind of stew or pasta dish labeled Regurgitated Fish Guts and souvenir vendors selling rubber mice on sticks to tempt the birds. And why not add a big sticker to the disclaimer on the back of the ticket, further releasing the club from liability for all wildlife-related incidents. (I got beaned with a rather large chunk of nest during Saturday’s strong winds.)

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

This I believe in--Diz-E Bat Races Posted by Picasa

McDermott Field Posted by Picasa

Famous potatoes

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho – Well, so far, the Frontier League is batting 1.000 for rustic, small-town baseball charm. McDermott Field, home of the Idaho Falls Chukars, is lovely little park that showing its decades of wear, but in a nice way. Set in a quiet residential district a few blocks from the Mormon Temple, the park draws a solid crowd of devoted fans, plus a few guys watching the game from the balcony of their apartment.

(For those who haven’t spent much time in the intermountain West, by the way, the chukar is small gamebird similar to a grouse and widely sought by hunters. Tastes like chicken.)

Among the few quirks at McDermott are an odd layout that includes a few rows of reserved seats perched right on top of the dugout, like an island. Also, it’s apparently near a glider airport, so every few innings you get to watch one make lazy pirouettes over the outfield.
Idaho Falls is apparently in the midst or raising money for a new ballpark. I’d say all they need is a new coat of green paint for the fine little facility they already have.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Kindrick Field Posted by Picasa

Kindrick Field Posted by Picasa

Way out West

HELENA, Montana – Home plate on the range, where the Major League scouts and questionable Venezuelan prospects play and seldom is heard a discouraging word, except from that nut in the bleachers who questions the ump’s every call.

The Helena Brewers (Pioneer League, Class A) delivered one of the most quintessential small-town baseball experiences I’ve had. And we’re talking true small-town, as in dirt roads leading to the ballpark and home runs hitting the Army recruiting station.

The team’s Kindrick Field is a humble and aged wood and corrugated metal shrine, with fewer than a thousand fans on a delightfully cool summer’s eve. With a nice view of the tree-covered hills (and the state capital) and a luminous Big Sky Country sunset to look at, it’d be a fine place to while away the evening if you weren’t fascinated in appraising some fine pitching prospects for Milwaukee.

Besides a lovely setting and blessedly minimal renovation, other reasons to appreciate Kindrick Field include a promotions scheduler with enough cheek to put $2 Microbrew Monday and Church Night on the same night. (Those microbrew choices, by the way, include the regionally famous Pig’s Ass Porter.)

Besides microbrews, concession choices were pretty mundane, but I did enjoy what I expect will be my last bratwurst of my trip. This has prompted me to develop a new theory of American regionalism, with Milwaukee as the center of an oblong zone in which Midwestern/farm/Old Country influence gradually declines and blends into other regional cultures. I expect that the farther west I travel from here, sushi will be more common than brats.

P.S. –These folks are even more obsessive about protection from foul balls than La Crosse. Kindrick Field’s netting even covers the press box.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

It's a living... Posted by Picasa

Newman Outdoor Field Posted by Picasa

Newman Outdoor Field Posted by Picasa

Not at all like the Coen Bros. movie...

FARGO, North Dakota -- I’m developing a theory about the new face of Minor League baseball: It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t matter.

Tonight’s nearly sold-out contest between the Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks (Northern League, Independent) and the St. Paul Saints is the at least the fourth independent league game I’ve gone to with attendance and crowd spirit way ahead of most of the affiliated teams I’ve seen. Yet this is baseball without what is supposed to be one of the defining attractions of Minor League—the chance to watch young players mature into Major League stars. Realistically, the young guys on these independent teams have almost nil chance of going anywhere bigger, and the older guys are just trying to ride out a few more seasons.

But the fans in places like Fargo and suburban Kansas City eat it up, even though the powers that be have declared that their town is too small, too remote, too close to a Major League franchise or too whatever to have what we’d think of as a real Minor League team.

Give credit to the business sense of the guys running these teams and leagues. Divorced of any training duties, all they have to care about is creating an experience the local folks enjoy. They really know how to cater to kids, and group sales tend to be much bigger at the independent games I’ve seen. (I was seated next to a bachelorette party tonight, which just seemed…wrong. Since when do women celebrate their independence and feminine solidarity by going to a half-assed spectator sporting event and getting woozy on lite beer? That kind of doltishness is supposed to be reserved for men, dammit!)

As for Newman Outdoor Field, home of the Redhawks, not much to say. It’s a pretty average looking 1990s park, situated on the sleepy SUND campus. It’s few remarkable features would, at first glance, have to include the name. What other baseball facility celebrates the fact that it’s located outdoors? Although maybe that’s a worthwhile thing when the closest Major League franchise is the Twins, who continue to sully baseball tradition and the sainted name of Hubert Humphrey with their wretched Metrodome. Turns out Newman is the local billboard company, though, so I was just reading the name wrong.

Also, it seems odd that they evidently had wads to spend on luxury boxes and kiddy funworld stuff, but they still have an old-style scoreboard, with a guy sitting in a lawn chair when he’s not hanging up wooden number placards.

Oh, and this is the first place I’ve been to where they sell pickled eggs at the concession stands.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Taking a break from his day job portraying Jesus in "South Park".... Posted by Picasa

Copeland Field Posted by Picasa

What I did on my summer vacation...

LA CROSSE, Wis. – Professional baseball has produced a number of organizational variations, from the Minor League system to independent leagues to semi-pro ball. But the Northwoods League doesn’t fit neatly into any of the categories.

The league, which has teams across the upper Midwest, isn’t affiliated with any Major League teams or other existing baseball organizations and solely recruits college players looking to boost their skills and for an alternative to working at Burger King for the summer.

The league is interesting mainly as a business experiment. Without those pesky player salaries, would-be entrepreneurs can bring an experience similar to Minor League ball to cities that normally couldn’t support a team.

And, judging from the Loggers, La Crosse’s squad in the Northwoods League, they’re making a go of it after three years. The stands were at least two-thirds full Wednesday for an ordinary mid-week game, and fans were more enthusiastic than the level of play might merit.

Copeland Park, the team’s home, isn’t much to look at. Think of a newish muni field with a few more tiers of bleachers, a log cabin for a press box and a borrowed Lion’s Club pavilion for concessions. But you get a tree-filtered view of the Mississippi River (which smells kind of funny when it gets really hot) from the upper seats and a better bratwurst than they serve at County Stadium…err, Miller Park.

I’d rate the level of play a notch below the single A ball I’ve seen, but no worse than the Rookie League games I’ve seen. Surprisingly, there was no visible scouting activity in the stands.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Alliant Energy Field Posted by Picasa

Alliant Energy Field Posted by Picasa

Rolling on the river

CLINTON, Iowa -- One of the benefits of not researching a trip like this to excess is that sometimes you come across a really nice surprise, like Alliant Energy Field, home of the Lumber Kings (Midwest League, single A). I stopped here with no expectations, because it was on the way and Clinton was playing a home game.

But the stadium turns out to be a delightful little relic, built in 1937 through the beneficence of the Works Progress Administration and misleadingly named Riverview Stadium. There’s no view of the Mississippi River a block away, not surprising given that the river was an industrial freight corridor, not a gambling and recreation attraction, when the place was built.

Clinton has done blessedly little in the way of renovation over the last 68 years. The field is hard to figure from the outside, looking more like an Indio dates and fruit stand than a mid-America ballpark. But inside, it’s as close to a classic small-town field as I’ve seen. We’re talking creaky wooden box seats, red, white and blue bunting behind the batter and a big tin awning that offers blessed relief from the late afternoon sun.

The place also has a few endearing quirks, including light poles that look more like recycled farm equipment and a Crisco-laden concession menu with items labeled “fried foods” and “garbage pail.” The team also has an extraordinary zeal for protecting fans from foul balls, broken bats and other items covered by that disclaimer on the back of the ticket. The netting extends all the way to first and third bases, altering the view for all but a handful of seats.

Predictably, Clinton plans to tear down the place as soon as it can and put up a shiny new riverfront complex as soon as it can raise the bucks. With the WPA nothing but a faint, fond memory, that may take some time. “Prosperity” is not the first word that comes to mind during a tour of downtown Clinton.
As for the level of play, I’m trying to formulate a theory as to why the single-A ball I’ve seen in California has never included the degree of defensive ineptitude I’ve seen this week.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Cartoons!! Posted by Picasa

Fifth Third Field Posted by Picasa

Holy Toledo!

TOLEDO, Ohio -- Blame it on Jamie Farr. The actor’s frequent plugs for his hometown Toledo Mud Hens on TV’s “M*A*S*H*” was the only reminder for most Americans that Minor League baseball even existed during the dark days of the 1970s, and it helped create an enduring mystique for the team.

The Mud Hens (AAA, International League) live up to the legend. The city, which has had professional baseball since the 1890s, is bursting with civic pride for the team. They have one of the finest and region-specific mascots in the Minors. ( I preceded the game with what seemed like a nicely appropriate visit to a nearby swamp/bird sanctuary.)

And the Hens have a swell new home in 3-year-old Fifth Third Field, one of the best examples I’ve seen of a downtown ballpark that blends into the environment. At first it looks like a Disney recreation of Foundry America. But the semi-preserved brick buildings the stadium is built into are the real thing, genuine urban neglect only beginning to turn around in what will need to be a massive redevelopment campaign.
All this, plus a good calzone concession, and cartoons before the game, interspersed with Mr. Farr himself describing grounds for ejection from the stadium. It’s swell enough to make you choke up when opposite sides of the stadium start yelling MUD!!!! HENS!!!! during tight spots.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Bowman Field Posted by Picasa

Bowman Field Posted by Picasa

Going to church, Milwaukee-style Posted by Picasa

Go west, young blogger

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- Back on the road, after a fine familial break in upstate New York. The stay included a visit to Cooperstown, which seemed pretty bland and stat-focused after the very human experience of the Negro Leagues Museum. Multiple exhibits for Ty Cobb, for example, and not a single hint of his thermonuclear personality. Best exhibit is Jackie Robinson’s resignation letter, which he composed on stationery borrowed from the Chock Full o’ Nuts he was drinking coffee in when he learned he’d been traded.

A few hundred miles downstream on the Susquehanna, I begin the westward trek with a visit to Historic Bowman Field, home of the Crosscutters (single A, New York-Penn League). My general sense is to be wary, just like seaside restaurants, of any facility that includes “historic” in the name.

Bowman Field neither proves nor disproves the theory. It is indeed old, dating to the mid-1920s, but it’s been renovated to a fare-thee-well on the outside. From the seats, it’s more plain and authentic-feeling, but nothing too extraordinary.

More striking was the amazingly inept defensive play by the visiting Vermont Expos, who surprisingly have not changed their name since becoming affiliated with the hot, hot Washington Nationals. Or maybe I’ve just been spoiled by too much AAA ball.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Aerial view from tower Posted by Picasa

Rogers Centre and CN Tower Posted by Picasa

Awfully big place, eh?

TORONTO -- Another Major League detour for me, and another convertible-roof stadium. It’s hard to get too warm and fuzzy about Rogers Centre (named after the cable company, not the psycho pitcher), maybe because it’s just too darn big. Whoever decided Toronto needed room for more than 60,000 baseball fans at a time was one of the great optimists of our times.

And then there’s the playing surface, as dreary a slab of polyester oleoresin as ever pretended to be grass. It’s amazing hitters ever get extra bases having to run those slick, dirt-free baselines.

Concessions are a pretty grim lot, too—you’ve really got to scour the place to find the two outlets of local color, a Kosher knish-and-latke stand and, separated by respectful distance, another tiny booth selling back bacon on a bun.

My impression of the joint brightened somewhat when they opened the roof, an event they delay until five minutes before the first pitch, perhaps for fear of having to vacuum the outfield again. Once the airplane hangar—oops, I mean stadium—is open to the setting sun, you at least get a nice natural breeze and a fine view of the adjacent CN Tower.

And I have to admit that the hotel embedded into the outfield wall is a pretty wacky touch. Recently voted least likely to host an Exhibitionists Anonymous meeting.

I diverted from my usual root for the home team pattern, by the way, to cheer on the hometown Oakland A’s, who I’m even sweeter on having finished Michael Lewis’ excellent “Moneyball” a few hours before the game.

Also BTW, this will be my last dispatch for a week or so, as I concentrate on family and outdoor pursuits, minus an afternoon off for a visit to Cooperstown.

Monday, July 04, 2005

C.O. Brown Stadium Posted by Picasa

In the event five (5) innings are not completed....

BATTLE CREEK, Mich. -- Well, tonight was good for a couple of surprises. The first was C.O. Brown Stadium itself. I hadn’t expected much from the home of the Southwest Michigan Devil Rays, a new entry in the single-A Midwest League.

But the ballpark is a nice little chunk of thinly disguised history. Parts of the ballpark date back to the World War I era, and while the owners have made a few upgrades to the exterior (including a ludicrously overdone entryway, a kind of farm league Brandenburg Gate), the inside still looks quite authentic. Lots of wood, and the closest thing to a luxury box is a couple of wooden patio things bolted on to the cheap seats. A very hometown America kind of place to enjoy the Fourth of July.

Minor dings to the team for not bothering to come up with a regionally appropriate name in the birthplace of breakfast cereals. The Snap Crackle Pops? The Toasties?

The other surprise was the game. I’ve occasionally grumbled about Minor League ball turning into a family fun park, with baseball as a side attraction, but I never thought I’d actually see an event where they went ahead with the between-innings contests and after-game fireworks and said the heck with the game itself.

Official reason was water in the outfield. At this level of ball, that should mean the sudden formation of another Great Lake. But apparently the grass being slightly damper than the carpet in my Motel 6 room is enough for these umps to call the game and order a doubleheader for tomorrow.

I decided to skip the two-hour wait for fireworks at the ballpark. Gotta go now and see if it’s dry enough for the main city fireworks show.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Sausage racing! Posted by Picasa

Miller Park Posted by Picasa

What made Milwaukee famous

MILWAUKEE – And now a detour from the minors for a visit to my boyhood home, the ancestral homeland and the team I always root for. Last time I caught a Brewers game at home, they were still playing in the humble but lovable old shed that was County Stadium.

But the Brewers have a way of making you reconsider your baseball principles. Bud Selig? OK, I guess he isn’t actually the spawn of Satan. Domed stadiums? Well, maybe they do make sense when April games are routinely called on account of blizzards.

And it turns out that 4-year-old Miller Park ain’t too bad when it comes to ballparks with lids. It’s a retractable roof, and when they put the top down on a fine summer night like Friday, it’s just another open-air ballpark but with a monstrosity of an awning. (I’m sure the menacing look I initially perceived in the roof’s giant metallic exoskeleton was solely due to having seen “War of the Worlds” the night before.) Even I have to admit there’s a lot more “Wow!” factor to entering the new park than the old one.

Further on the positive side, the interior spaces maintain a lot of the feel of the old County Stadium. The esteemed Hank Aaron is honored with a nature trail along the river that runs between the parking lot and the stadium. Sausage racing still gets ‘em out of their seats in the sixth inning. And my fears that stadium naming rights were part of a larger nefarious business deal were unfounded—they’ve got dozens of microbrews to choose from.

And yes, they’ve kept Bernie Brewer, the Teutonic mascot who celebrates home runs atop the outfield fence. But instead of a German chalet and a giant beer mug to dive into, Bernie now is encased in a structure that looks more like a prison guard tower. C’mon—the team is named for beer. Surely the kiddies can handle the sight of one more happy German enjoying a frosty one.

On a personal note, after weeks of reflexively rooting for the home team, it feels great to really be caught up in the outcome of a game again. And Friday was a fine one, capped by an amazing Geoff Jenkins catch over the fence and a three-run homer to win the game.