Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Game 30: Touching Home

30 in 38

After Game 30 in Boston on Sunday, September 9th, the four of us left Fenway and headed back to Middlebury, where it all started, and where the fall semester would begin on Monday, the 10th. The writing of this post has been sacrificed for all of the obligations that the school year entails. I apologize to our readers for the delay.

The delay, unintentionally, has lasted 38 days.

The time back at school has provided some distance in perspective that I believe will be helpful in my writing now. I hope that this post reflects that perspective.

That perspective motivates my decision to start this post with our "Thank You" section. The following is a list of individuals toward whom we are indebted for their help in making this trip possible. These are the people who collectively defined our trip, and whose willingness to provide support was a constant source of energy and motivation for us. Looking back, it is hard to believe how lucky we were and how much of a collective effort was put into our journey.

The Staff of Middlebury's Office for Education in Action
Education in Action Donors
Tim Mosehauer
Our Parents
Karl Lindholm
Jesse Golomb
Buster Olney
Julia Hatheway
Alan Kauffman
Jackie Anderson
Alice Fahs and Charlie Chubb
The Adelstein family
Ben Seiler
Gregg Lerner
Suzi and Robert Kramer
Sarah Hatheway
Joe MacDonald
Mike and Caroline Moore
Dave Hatheway
Kara Gilmore
Tom McDonald
The San Francisco Giants organization
The Fitzpatrick family
Joey Carmichael
The Sweeney family
The Chalmers family
Annette Wilson
Jason and Robert from MMP
The Larkin family
J.P. Shivanandan
Paul Soulos
John and Elly McKenna
The many people who we met spontaneously along the way
The many of our friends who joined us at the ballpark
All of our readers

To each of you, thank you so much.


Blue Jays 4, Red Sox 3

I grew up going to games at Fenway Park. It was my first, and for quite a while my only, major league ballpark. Home to my beloved Red Sox, it represented the abstract ideal to me as a youth. If you had asked me for my favorite place in the universe, I would have said Fenway Park for most of my young life. No experience brought me more joy than the first sight of the field through the concrete tunnels at Fenway, like a first glimpse of heaven from earth.

Until this trip, I really knew no other ballparks. I had been to the old Olympic Stadium in Montreal a few times, and Camden Yards once, but remembered little of either. I had never compared them to Fenway. Fenway was the best because it was mine, not because of any attempt at objective evaluation or comparison. I adored it uncritically.

Watching the last game of our 30 stadium tour at Fenway Park gave me an opportunity to return to my major league home, and to look at it through the lens of awareness that this trip had provided. It gave me the opportunity to see Fenway in the context of the 2012 MLB Ballpark Experience, and to lend some semblance of objectivity to my opinion of it.

Day 38 taught me that there is indeed something remarkably different about Fenway, something remarkably special. It is, in my opinion, the greatest ballpark in the major leagues.

Why? Let's start with the obvious: Fenway has the most natural character in design of any major league ballpark. From the Green Monster in left, to the Triangle in center, to Pesky's Pole in right, to the intimately tight confines in which the whole thing is built, Fenway's design exemplifies the uniqueness of venue that every park seeks in some form or another.

Fenway is also old, and in a sport so made of history as baseball, age matters. Babe Ruth and Lefty Grove pitched in Fenway; Carl Yastrzemski and Ted Williams hit in Fenway. When a baseball fan looks around the park, history comes alive everywhere. Whether it be Williams' 502 foot home run, Bucky Dent's 1978 season-ending shot over the Green Monster, Roger Clemens' record-setting 20 strikeout performance against the Mariners, or Dave Roberts' world-changing steal in the 2004 ALCS, Fenway Park is a theater of historical moments. No fancy roof, mammouth bleachers, or state-of-the-art architecture can do to the baseball experience what history does at Fenway. It is a shrine to baseball immortality.

But I knew and appreciated all of this before the trip. I already loved Fenway for these reasons, as any baseball romantic would after attending a Red Sox game. What then, was the source of the newfound appreciation I gained from this trip? In short, it was the uniqueness of the baseball atmosphere.

Back in May, I put a short post up on this blog after reading about the death of Red Sox PA announcer Carl Beane. I referenced one story from the article, about how Beane reacted to the pressure he felt to bring a more fast-paced, high-content atmosphere to Fenway. "I know what Fenway is," Beane had said. "It's a baseball park, not a rock concert, not an amusement park, not an NBA game." At the time, I thought Beane's comment was insightful and meaningful. Looking back, I realize that it was borderline heroic.

See, here's what I didn't realize before going on this trip: Most baseball parks are doing everything they can do to become more like rock concerts, amusement parks, and NBA games, in some form or another. I can only now imagine how many millions of dollars are poured into ballpark features and routines that focus on things other than baseball. Concourses are expanded to make way for ferris wheels, carousels, and swimming pools. (Not to mention strip clubs.) Squads of energetic teenagers are hired to dance on top of dugouts and shoot t-shirts to the crowds between innings. Ballpark emcees pop up on the scoreboard about ten times per game to promote an event or interview some uninteresting fan. When the crowd is supposed to cheer, music blares and "Noise Level," meters start bouncing on the video screens. And every half inning the scoreboard introduces some new form of visual entertainment, from the "Kiss Cam" to the animated character race to the game where you see how long you can keep your eye on one of three rapidly scurrying hats.

Baseball fans are treated as if they would not know what to do with themselves if they were given a minute without an object to occupy their attention. As if it would be the worst thing in the world if the breaks between innings were spent thinking about the game, looking back at the scorecard, explaining a play from earlier, or simply talking with friends and family. Which between-innings image ought Major League Baseball to prefer: a father and son watching a condiment race on the JumboTron, or a father and son talking about the way the shortstop takes ground balls in infield? The trend that we discovered suggests that the powers-that-be prefer the former in the vast majority of Major League cities.

So what Carl Beane was responding to was in fact a pressure so significant that it has come to dictate the ballpark experience almost universally. I appreciate Fenway's resistance to that pressure so much more after this trip. Fenway has scoreboards, but their use is limited: high-definition instant replays of the game, player photos and statistics, and historical highlight reels between innings (some of the best, by the way). There is no music cranked in during the game, there is no ballpark emcee, there are no races or hat games, and there are no gimmicks or giveaways. If you don't like baseball, there isn't much to do. If you do like baseball, however, it is ideal. The acoustics of the game dominate, from the crack of the bat to the pop of the mitt, and the visuals of the game and the park are made so much more beautiful by their being the exclusive object of attention. There is one act on stage at Fenway Park, and it is baseball.

So does Fenway suffer from poor attendance and lifeless crowds as a result of their unwillingness to fold to the state of the art? As anybody who understands what draws people to baseball could have predicted, of course not. We were at Fenway Park for a game in September with the Red Sox in last place, the team chemistry in shambles, the manager on his way out, and the front office deep in the doghouse of the Boston fanbase. The 2012 Red Sox gave fans nothing to root for. The particular Sunday afternoon that we were at Fenway also happened to be the first weekend of the NFL season, and the Bostonians' beloved Patriots, a team and organization that does everything right from top to bottom, and that felt like the anti-Red-Sox at the time, happened to kick off their opening game thirty minutes before first pitch at Fenway. So as far as Fenway experiences go, ours was quite obviously at the bottom of the spectrum, a victim of circumstance. And yet, the bottom of the spectrum at Fenway would be the top of the spectrum at most ballparks. The crowd showed up on time and stuck around, and while there were empty seats, the place was plenty full, more so than at most of the ballparks. And the crowd was there for baseball, even if it was only last place on the line. Unprompted, the place filled with life for big moments, and instead of just cheering and booing with the ebb and flow of the game, it was clear that fans were actually paying attention. When Red Sox starting pitcher Clay Buchholz left the game after allowing four runs in eight and two thirds innings, he was given a standing ovation. Why was one of the underachieving centerpieces of the chicken-and-beer scandal given an ovation after allowing four runs? Because he had actually pitched a great game. His command was terrific and his changeup was dominant. There was only one ball hit hard off of him, and the runs came by way of dribblers through the infield, bloop hits and sacrifice flies. The fans were paying attention, and knew it was a good performance. Not to say that the fans don't sometimes lose touch with the game, only to say that the atmosphere at Fenway is conducive to a real focus on baseball, and the consequences of that atmosphere manifested themselves clearly to me. I hope it is soon realized by others around the league that lively crowds and packed houses can come from focusing on baseball, rather than from sacrificing it.

Now, if I am really going to stand behind the claim that Fenway Park is the best ballpark in baseball, my work here is not yet done. (After all, one thing we learned on this trip was to never stop arguing.) Of the other twenty-nine parks, only twenty-eight of them have given in to this pressure for extraneous entertainment. Wrigley Field in Chicago, which opened the same decade as Fenway, is the exception, and for all the same reasons. It is one with history, void of distractions, and beautifully unique in design. Wrigley was an amazing experience, and a must-see for a baseball fans.

I hate the implicit inferiority that comes with ranking, especially with two ballparks as great as Wrigley and Fenway. Fenway gets my nod, however, for two reasons: First, the high definition scoreboards at Fenway, because they are used only for replays of the game, add to the experience. When it is not used for games and gimmicks, technology can be a great complement to baseball. If the video scoreboard can show me pitching splits or a slow-motion replay of a great play, I am all for it. Second, the atmosphere is more baseball-centric. Wrigley, to me, felt like a party, and plenty of fans were so socially engaged that they lost track of the game. At Fenway, while there remains a similar light hearted social attitude (reflected in, for example, the singing of Sweet Caroline), the love of baseball is above all else.

Fenway in many ways remains the ideal to me. It is alive with history, beautifully constructed, and pure in its purpose. The atmosphere is energetic and attuned due only to the unprompted interest of the fans, and the scoreboards accomplish the perfect integration of old and new. It is a park which pays higher respect to the game of baseball than any other, and for that, I am glad to call it my baseball home.

Finally, a little note, for what it's worth: Baseball is a game of nines. There are nine innings in a game, nine positions on the field, and nine batters in the lineup. An inning is divisible into nines by its three strikes within each of its three outs. There are ninety feet between the bases, and the major league baseball schedule consists of nine-squared games at home and nine-squared games on the road. The best pure hitter in baseball history, Ted Williams, wore number nine. On Day 38, as we completed our dream-come-true baseball journey at Fenway Park, Williams' home for his entire baseball career, it was Sunday, September 9th. That is, nine-nine. A special day indeed.

Here are some closing stats and reflections from the day and the trip. We also hope to put together a final comprehensive reflection at some point in the future, and that will be posted on this blog. (And a note to all those wondering, the four of us are still friends. We even hang out sometimes. Against all odds!)

Games watched: 30
Games to go: 0
Fan Atmosphere: See above (low day on a high spectrum)
Food and Drink: Fittingly, the fare is just right for baseball: Fenway Franks, Kielbasas, and Italian Sausage. It's pretty good, too.
Thuuz score: 61 (special thanks to Thuuz for helping me out on this one)
Total Car Breakdowns: 0
Total Rain Outs: 0
Total innings of baseball missed: 0
Total outs of baseball missed: 2 (debatable--we arrived in Oakland before first pitch but did not get into sight of the batter until after two outs in the top of the first)
Total outs of baseball seen: 811 (or 813)
Total page views on the blog (as of 10/17/12): 12,885
Total individual cost (for me only, all costs included): $2,900
Total miles traveled: 15,011
Miles to go: 0
Lasting memory: With the Red Sox losing 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth, Cody Ross was at the plate with a runner on first and nobody out. On an 0-2 pitch, he cranked the ball directly down the left field line, high and deep. If it was fair, it was gone. I sprang from my seat (which was on the first base side of home plate, a perfect view of the ball as it went down the line), and had a rush of emotion. Could my baseball dream really be capped off with my favorite team hitting a walk-off home run? Could that be the last play of baseball I would see in my most unforgettable summer of baseball fandom? I looked down from the ball and half-expected Cody Ross to be waving it fair, for there to be a "2" in front of the "7" on his jersey. As I gathered my arms to throw them up in the air and never let them down, the ball hooked left and went over the wall in foul territory. Ross struck out, and the Red Sox lost. But that moment, I felt like I touched perfect.

My Final Top 5 Stadium Ranking:
1. Fenway Park, Boston
2. Wrigley Field, Chicago
3. Camden Yards, Baltimore
4. PNC Park, Pittsburgh
5. AT&T Park, San Francisco

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Monday, October 8, 2012

Game 29: Checking in on Baby Brother

Throughout the beginnings of my fandom in the mid-1990s, the Mets-Yankees rivalry was fierce. I owned a t-shirt that read "This is your brain" next to a Yankees logo and "This is your brain on drugs" next to a Mets logo; my best friend had one where the Yankees and Mets logos were switched. Our elementary school made a rule that we were only allowed to wear them if we wore our shirts on the same day. With the advent of the six "subway series" games each year with interleague play, the Mets-Yankees rivalry become so heated, they were on the same level as the Red Sox in terms of my degree of loathing. When the two teams met in a World Series edition of the subway series in 2000, the city was at once divided by allegiances and united by the thrill of late-October baseball.

That was the rivalry at its peak. Lamentably, after two late-season collapses, some really bad contracts, and the crippling blow of the Madoff scandal to the ownership's ability to run the team effectively, the competitive animosity between the teams has disintegrated completely. Many Mets fans have become disaffected by recent moves like letting Jose Reyes leave via free agency while Jason Bay continues to be a blight on both the field and the payroll.

Yankees fans, meanwhile, are almost irrationally ambivolent and dismissive of all things Mets.

The Mets have always been the baby brother trying desperately to keep up with the Yankees' track record of heavy spending and winning seasons, but their past ability to run stride for stride with the Bronx Bombers has made their recent failures are all the more disappointing. Perhaps some of the novelty of interleague play has worn off, but the biggest driver behind the disintegration of the Subway rivalry has been the extreme divergence of the teams' performances.

So on Saturday, the second to last day of our trip, it felt really strange to be in the Citi Field parking lot. Because of how the relationship between Mets fans and Yankees fans has evolved in recent years, I was shocked by how negatively I reacted to arriving at the stadium. I very much liked the stadium itself, and I for one thought the food was the best of any ballpark in baseball, but it became clear immediately that some embers of the Mets-Yankees rivalry still burn inside me.

And then all of the signs of the dead rivalry started to hit me. The Mets had a 65-74 record. Their leadoff hitter was a guy named Mike Baxter. The cheapest game day seats in the stadium cost $32 (the $10 student discounted seats were sold out), the most expensive of any stadium by far, which led to a paid attendance of 25,000 (though the number of fans in the stands looked a lot closer to 15,000). After a 1 hour 15 minute rain delay (our first delay of the whole trip), the Mets were losing 8-3 and the stadium was practically empty. Oh, and one of the fans in our row was literally asleep. Not even nodding-off-close-your-eyes-for-a-minute sleeping; I think that if there had not been a torrential downpour in the seventh inning, he may have woken up to an empty stadium with the game already over.

And the Mets were playing the Braves, their fiercest division rival. Every New Yorker old enough to have a driver's license vividly remembers John Rocker and Chipper "LARR-RRY" Jones. Braves fans will never forget the havoc Mike Piazza and John Franco wreaked upon them. Or at least that was what I used to think; maybe some of them already have.

The worst part is that I know there are die-hard Mets fans who love to support their team even in tough times like these, but at $32 a ticket, can you really blame them for not showing up?

Games Watched: 29
Games to go: 1
Thuuz Rating: 19
Half-eaten Shackburger
Food: A+ and the best of any stadium. With Danny Meyer creations like Blue Smoke and Shake Shack, coupled with New York staples like Two Boots Pizza, it simply does not get any better.

Tim Kurkjian Award: There was no noise when the game started, which I mention because the main restaurant plaza is located behind the center field scoreboard. As a result, we didn't even realize the teams had taken the field and the first pitch had already been thrown until we were walking back to our seats with the food.
Miles Traveled: 14,346
Miles to next game: 215 (Blue Jays @ Red Sox, Fenway Park)

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Game 28: Birdland

Editor's Note: We sincerely apologize for taking so long to publish our final blog posts. The drawback of starting classes 15 hours after the final game is that we have struggled to find the time to finish these posts. We will, however, continue to post reflection pieces even after the game posts are complete. Thank you for your patience.

I love Camden Yards. Opened in 1992, in my opinion it is the best of what modern stadiums can be. Jeff, Damon, Owen, and I have spent countless hours arguing over what aspects of each stadium make it "better" than any other. Ultimately, we realize, it is an impossible debate to resolve. Each team has a unique character and history, and the stadium itself is inextricably linked to the legacy of the franchise it houses. The two best examples of this are Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, both of which are differentiated by their age and quirks, but distinguished by the players who played there and the moments that happened there. When the Athletics, for example, build their next stadium, there should not be an oddly high left field field wall or any other gimmick for the sake of being unique.

So while our conversations about which ballparks are our favorites may never become fully resolved, some key themes have become apparent:

1) Always have baseball in mind

With two exceptions (Fenway and Wrigley), the experience of watching Major League baseball is diluted by mascot races, scoreboard-induced "Charge!!" cheers, and a plethora of other media. Individually, they are usually somewhat entertaining and generally harmful. Collectively, however, they detract from the baseball experience.

At Camden Yards, I especially loved that Eutaw Street was at the same elevation as the top of the right field wall, where there was open standing room space.

The most memorable moment for me though, was the tradition of yelling the "O! Say can you see?" during the Star-Spangled Banner, and I absolutely loved it. The cheer was unique, it made sense, it got fans into the game, and most importantly it felt completely organic.

2) Create your own baseball "village"

This is the area where the Orioles truly excel. The advent of Eutaw Avenue, a enclosed street within the stadium's ground that houses barbeque street vendors, the team store, and a variety of other entertainment options. Wrigleyville in Chicago and Yawkee Way in Boston feature a public street that, much like an opening comedy acts, does a fantastic job of getting fans in the mood for baseball even before they enter the stadium.

Even the rooftop bar in center field was nice because the views were of the stadium, rather than tucking the bar into some air conditioned cavern and filling it with TVs. The bar was unique in that it was an experience you could only enjoy if you were at the game.

3) Leverage your surroundings

Within the stadium, the attention of spectators should be pushed towards the field, but when a team is blessed with some unique view, like the city skyline in Seattle or the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, the stadium should be constructed in a way that connects it to the surrounding environment. The Yankees, for example, play in the South Bronx, where there are no good views of the Manhattan skyline, which almost certainly factored into the team's decision to have seating all around the stadium with no views outward. By contrast, at Coors Field we were treated to a gorgeous sunset over the Rockies in between Brewers mound visits (Milwaukee's starter, Michael Fiers, didn't make it out of the third inning).

In my opinion, Camden Yards, along with PNC Park, AT&T Park, and Petco Park, was one of four post-1920 stadiums that did everything right. What differentiated Camden for me was, admittedly, pretty game specific. With the Yankees in town and AL East division race coming down to every last game, there was probably more energy in that stadium for this weekend series than there had been in over ten years. You couldn't have told that from that night, however.

Plus, any time you can see your favorite team win an important game on the road, you're in for a good time.

Games Watched: 28
Games to Go: 2
Stadium: Beautiful for all the reasons described above; in my opinion Oriole Park at Camden Yards was the most well-designed stadium of the last 30 years, and they did it even without the benefit of riverfront/bay-front property

Thuuz Rating: 82
Tim Kurkjian Award: The Yankees pinch hit for three consecutive hitters, substituting Raul Ibanez for Andruw Jones, Ichiro Suzuki for Steve Pearce, and Eric Chavez for Casey McGehee
Miles Traveled: 14118
Miles to go: 201 (Braves @ Mets, Citi Field)

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Sunday, September 9, 2012

Game 27: The Big Fundamental

Phillies 6, Reds 2

When I think of the best players in baseball, I typically think of the most exciting players to watch; players like Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen immediately come to mind. And while both are having MVP-caliber seasons, I often overrate players of a similar playing style. The allure of five tool players — players who can run, throw, field, hit for power and hit for average — creates the misconception that players who can affect the game in all five areas are more exciting, or even better, than players who are among the best in the league in just two of those areas. Players who hit for power and hit for average and do it while playing for smaller market teams are most often the players who do not get enough credit for their talent. Take Joey Votto, for example. Votto can't run like Eric Hosmer, let alone future teammate Billy Hamilton, but what Votto does well, he does better than anyone in the Major Leagues. In six seasons, Votto has a career average of .317 and an OPS of .970 with an MVP to go with it. But even after winning the 2010 NL MVP Award, Votto is as overlooked and underrated as ever. Earlier this year I read an incredible piece written by Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci on Votto. Among the highlights: the Reds first baseman has yet to pop up to the infield this season and has only popped up to the infield three times in his entire career; Votto has only pulled one ball foul into the stands in his career, during his rookie season — and has never hit a foul ball home run; and when behind in counts the Canadian born slugger hits .300 — 102 points better than the National league average of .198.

After a strong start to the season, Votto has been on the DL for the last two moths recovering from a meniscus tear. As a result, he sat out each of the first two games we saw the Reds play. Wednesday, however, he returned to the Reds lineup and was back in true Joey Votto form.

Even in person, it's easy to miss Votto's unique approach at the plate if you don't pay close attention. The secret to his success — if you could call it that — is not based on any one thing he does, but rather a number of characteristics and his consistent approach, the combination of which makes Votto less likely to make an out than almost anyone in baseball.

Great Eyes: Votto led the league in walks last year, racking up 117 of them en route to the best on-base percentage in the MLB. Hitting coaches tell you to watch every pitch you take, good or bad, all the way from the pitcher's release point into the catcher's mitt. Some players do it, many don't. Votto does it with every pitch he takes, giving himself as much information about the pitcher as he can. 

Plate Discipline: Votto is as disciplined a hitter as there is. He is rarely fooled by pitchers because he allows pitches to get so deep, giving him more time to diagnose a pitch before deciding to swing or not, leading to fewer "bad" swings and higher contact and walk rates. 

Opposite Field Power: The combination of Votto's quick hands, smooth swing and tremendous power        means that the Reds' slugger is probably the best opposite field home run hitter in the Majors. Of Votto's 14 home runs this year, only two have been pulled to right field. 

Hitting with Two Strikes: When people first learn to play baseball, coaches teach hitters to choke up on the bat with two strikes in order to shorten their swing, sacrificing power to maximize contact and avoid strikeouts. By the time players reach the Majors, however, very few of them change their plate approach significantly with two strikes. Today, baseball is a home run or strikeout league. Pitchers are "missing" bats at a higher rate than ever before and — steroid era notwithstanding — hitters are as home run focused as ever. The difficulty or unwillingness of hitters to make in-bat adjustments is evident by a .198 average among National League hitters when behind in the count. Votto, meanwhile, hits just 17 points below his career average when trailing in the count. 

Having seen him hit live, Joey Votto is now my favorite player to watch. His attention to detail and desire to give himself the best chance to get on base every time he steps to the plate is second to none. His ability to hit with power to the opposite field and hit for a high average when behind in the count by slapping pitches the other way reminds me of a combination of Adrian Gonzalez and Ichiro Suzuki in his prime. Above all, however, what separates Votto from other hitters are his fundamentals. Perhaps the closest comparison to Votto is a guy who plays a different sport; for no baseball player is more suited to Tim Duncan's nickname — the Big Fundamental — than Joey Votto.

There are certainly flashier players who may bring more excitement to the game, but while raw speed and power put fans in the seats, the Reds' first baseman will be patiently waiting, sizing up one pitch after the next until he finds one that he likes.

Games Watched: 27
Games to Go: 3
Stadium: Great American Ballpark is a sight for sore eyes from the outside. Once inside, however, the park has a midwest charm to it, similar in some ways to the feeling at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. The stadium is located on the river, which is shown throughout the ballpark. In addition to its location, I liked Great American Ballpark for its thoughtful design. The scoreboard was one of the strongest we've seen so far and displayed all the necessary information clearly and concisely, while also using smaller, more discrete screens throughout the park to display other stats as well as the National League standings.
Concessions: The Queen's City bratwurst was, in my mind, one of the three best hotdogs/sausages that we've eaten during this trip.
Fan Atmosphere: We were generally impressed by the fans. Despite a weekday game with nearly 100-degree temperatures, a strong number of fans showed up for the game and were active throughout, particularly in support of Votto. 
Thuuz Score: 23
Tim Kurkjian Award: In the top of the third inning, Ryan Howard took what he believed was ball four and started walking toward first base. Momentarily unsure, he turned back to home plate umpire Chris Guccione to confirm that the pitch was ball four, and, after receiving a quick nod from Blue, turned and trotted down to first base. After Howard was awarded the base, the Reds called time and pitching coach Bryan Price went to speak with struggling starter Mike Leake, allowing the umpires to have a brief conference at home plate. During their discussion, one of the other umpires alerted Guccione that Howard had in fact walked on three pitches, something that no one else in the ballpark had noticed. After the mound visit, Howard was then recalled back to home plate where he subsequently flew out to deep left center field.
Miles Traveled: 13520
Miles to Go: 523 (Yankees @ Orioles, September 7, 7:10 pm)

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Game 26: 90 Percent of Success is Showing Up

(Note: This post was written partially by Owen, and partially by Jeff)

Rockies 6, Braves 0
We were there, Chipper

After attending so many baseball games all across the country, we have become somewhat of an authority on fan behavior. Each park has its own inherent vibe and atmosphere that becomes apparent to any seasoned fan right when he or she steps into the stadium.  Along the way, we have seen both the good, passion and attentiveness, and the bad, apathy and distraction.  However, no fan atmosphere was worse than in Atlanta.  The experience was so bad that it led fan-favorite and lifelong Brave Chipper Jones to send the following tweet after the game: "Come on Atlanta! The Ted was a morgue tonight. We need you in full force. We feed off you guys. No excuse for the loss! Just sayin..."

In light of Chipper's tweet, I have decided to present a list of rules for baseball fans to live by if they want to enjoy the game to its fullest and avoid the shame of their favorite players.

Be in Your Seat by the National Anthem
It has been disappointing to see how many fans show up casually late to baseball games. First of all, this is disrupting to the game atmosphere as the first few innings are spent with people filing into the seats around you. Moreover, this causes many people to miss some important pre-game events. If a fan showed up just fifteen minutes before first pitch, they would be there in time to see the lineups, to watch the pre-game information and videos on the scoreboard (the scoreboard is at its best just before the game, when the best highlight videos are being played and standings and league leaders are being listed), and enjoy the national anthem. Finally, if you show up late, you miss baseball. In the first inning of games alone, we have seen so many important, fun, and interesting developments, moments, and plays. We saw the Yankees fans "roll call" their team in New York, we saw Carlos Beltran's home run set the tone for the Cardinals in St. Louis, we saw Stephen Strasburg lose command of his fastball in San Francisco (which gave the context for his adjusted pitching style in the later innings), we saw David Price throw a five pitch first inning in Texas, we saw Angel Pagan make the only solid contact of any Giants hitter all game in Los Angeles with his double to deep left-center, we saw Evan Longoria homer off the foul pole in Texas, we saw Adrian Beltre make a barehanded catch and diving throw for an out while charging a bunt in Cleveland, and we saw Jason Bay hit a grand slam in Miami. The point is, baseball fans, we've seen over and over again that there's good reason to come on time.

Cheer at the Appropriate Times
There is nothing more frustrating at a game than when fans cheer more for the gimmicks and promotions than for baseball. There have been too many games where the most life the fans have shown has been in an attempt to get a free t-shirt thrown their way, when the wave comes through their section, or when mustard beats ketchup in the pre-determined animated condiment race on the jumbo-tron. The fans and the scoreboard managers are equally guilty on this, but it would be a lot nicer if fans didn't need prompting to show some excitement. There is no need to wait for the scoreboard for your cues and enjoyment. The excitement is on the field, and the best chants start organically.

Never Ever Leave Early
We have been asking a question all trip, which was originally rhetorical but became literal. That is, what would it take to get fansto stay at a game? After we saw thousands of fans leaving before the ninth inning at our first few games, we wondered if they understood that any game could turn exciting or important at any time. How close would the game have to be, we asked, for them to realize that the climax was ahead of them? Then we saw fans (less of them, but still a lot) leave during one- and two-run games, and even tie games or games with significant playoff implications, and realized that a lot of fans will leave early just about regardless of what is going on on the field.  With the possible exception of emergencies, if you pay for nine innings, stay for the whole game.

This list is far from complete.  These are just our intial takeaways from the first 26 games.  If you have any to add, put them in the comment section below.  We can work together to become better fans of the sports and teams we love.

Games watched: 26
Games to go: 4
Thuuz score: 38
Stadium: B-, pretty bland, no big takeaways, although a good incorporation of history (pennants and statues) was a plus.
Fan Atmosphere: D, see above.
Concessions: A-, great barbeque pulled-pork sandwiches, and all reasonably priced.
Tim Kurkjian Award: On a throw to first base, when the throw barely beat the batter, both the first and home plate umpire called him out. The home plate umpire then immediately changed his call to safe, signaling that the first baseman came off the bag to make the catch. We have not seen an umpire overturn himself and another umpire without any new information. The overturn looked like the right call to us.
Miles traveled: 13,150
Miles to go: 470 (Phillies @ Reds, September 5, 12:30pm)

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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Game 25: Playoff Race

Rays 4, Yankees 3

We saw a big game at Tropicana Field on Monday. Probably the biggest game of the trip so far.

The visiting Yankees came into town with their ever-shrinking lead in the AL East down to 2 games over Baltimore, and just 3.5 over Tampa Bay. The series had the potential to determine the fate of the tightest division in baseball. The stakes were high. The Rays could smell blood, and the Yankees could see their once-easy road to the playoffs vanishing. One game might be the difference between a favorable first-round series and an anything-could-happen Wild Card playoff game.

With so few games remaining in the season, and so much left to be decided, I could feel the import of every moment in Monday afternoon's game. Consider the following turn of events, taken from the eighth inning alone:

It's the top of the eighth, and the score is 3-3. Both starters, James Shields and C.C. Sabathia, have recovered from early struggles and remain in the game. They are pitching like the workhorses they are. James Shields is nearing 120 pitches, and facing Nick Swisher, after walking the leadoff man. He gets ahead 1-2 in the count. The crowd tenses in anticipation of the next pitch. He throws a slider down and in. It cuts out of the strike zone just before it arrives. With two strikes, Swisher has to pull the trigger, and the late break gets under his bat. He makes contact, but it's a ground ball to first. Not his fault, on a pitch like that. The first baseman picks it up, throws to second, and it comes back to first in time for the double play. And the Yankees' momentum is dead. All because of the impossibility of that inside slider with two strikes. Every pitch counts.

Robinson Cano is the next batter. He is a career .415 hitter against James Shields, who appears to have very little left in the tank. Rays relievers have been warming up for the last inning or so. They have six relievers with ERAs under 3.00, an absurd luxury. Rays fans look to the bullpen, then to the dugout, waiting for movement. If Shields blows the game, Cano is the guy who he would do it against. If Shields stays in and gets the last out, and Maddon holds back on using a reliever, the Rays are much better prepared for the potential extra innings, as well as for the rest of the series. Maddon elects to keep Shields in the game, riding him an extra batter despite the odds. If Cano gets home, Maddon will face scrutiny for his inaction. Every decision counts.

Cano brings the count to 3-2. On the payoff pitch, He lines the ball sharply toward third. The third baseman, Elliot Johnson, has just replaced Evan Longoria, and he misplays the sinking line drive, allowing it to bounce off his glove and in front of him. It is too late for Cano to take advantage of the misplay, though, because instead of running off of contact, he stayed standing in the batter's box, watching what he thought would be an out. Johnson recovers and the throw beats the now-running Cano by a step. If he hadn't watched, he would have reached base, and if he had reached base, he would have kept the inning alive, and forced Maddon to bring in his eighth inning reliever. Instead, the inning is over for the Yankees. Every step counts.

It is now the bottom of the inning, David Robertson is in to relieve Sabathia, there is a man on first with no outs, and the game is still tied. The runner breaks on a pitchout, and appears to have a great jump, but the play is close thanks to a good throw and tag. From our perspective, the runner looks safe. The umpire calls him out. Now, instead of having a man in scoring position and no outs, the Rays have one out and nobody on. Joe Maddon jumps out of the dugout, irate with the call. He starts arguing and doesn't stop until he is thrown out of the game, which appeared to be his intent. You can make that call in the second inning in July, but not in the eighth inning in September. That runner would have become a fairly easy run, and that run would have put the game firmly in the Rays' control. Every call counts.

The Rays, perhaps energized by Maddon's tirade, have now returned a man to second, still with one out. On a 3-1 count, Chris Jimenez hits a grounder to Robinson Cano's left at second. Cano ranges backwards, and is within a body's reach of the ball. Instead of diving in front of it, he lunges only his arms, allowing the ball to go through into right field. On the passage of the ball through the infield, the runner scores easily from second, and the Rays take the lead. If Cano had dove to stop the ball, that run would not have scored. Everybody watching knows it. Cano decided it wasn't worth it. The Rays would end up winning the game because of that run. The 3.5 game lead is down to 2.5. Every ounce of devotion counts.

These are the little instances that decide divisions, and decide the fate of MLB seasons. In games like the one we saw in Tampa Bay, they are incredibly apparent. The crowd is zeroed in on them, and so are the players and coaches. Every moment feels like it might be a moment the team looks back on when the book is closed on this season. That is the big game feeling.

Games seen: 25
Games to go: 5
Thuuz score: 82
Stadium design: The Trop is generally considered the worst ballpark in the major leagues. There are good reasons for this, as the outside is ugly, the dome roof and lights come too far down and look awkward, and the field itself is splotchy AstroTurf. That said, it appears to have had a recent redesign, likely since the team strut out its new look (going from "Devil Rays" to "Rays", going dark blue/light blue instead of green/blue, and also becoming good at baseball). The redesign was as good as it could have been: most of the interior of the stadium (scoreboards, walls, signs, etc) looked new, and there was brick wallpaper in the concourses which was actually a pretty nice touch.
Fan atmosphere: There were a lot of fans there and they were into the game, but it should have been better. There were still a lot of empty seats (and some sections remained covered), for this, one of the biggest games of the year, with two high-caliber starters on the mound.
Tim Kurkjian award: With Raul Ibanez on 3rd base and 1 out, Russell Martin hit a hard ground ball that ricocheted off of Shields and toward first base. The first baseman hesitated to look back Ibanez at third, then saw that Shields was not covering first. He sprinted toward first and dove headfirst, at the same time that Martin dove headfirst. It's a bang-bang play, and the umpire calls Martin safe. In the meantime, Ibanez has darted for home and scored easily.
Concessions: Note to all ballparks: provide Ken's honey mustard and ranch dipping cups with your chicken tenders. That's what they did at the Trop, and that alone won me over big time. The tenders themselves were quite good as well.
Stat of the day: With his home run Monday, B.J. Upton now has 3 in the five Rays games in which we have seen. He is almost certainly going to end up with the most of anybody on our trip. And while we have only seen 4% of the Rays games this season, we have seen 17.6% of Upton's home runs.
Miles driven: 12,650
Miles to next game: 460 (Rockies @ Braves, September 5, 7:05pm)

More pictures will be uploaded soon.

Game 24: Marlins Stadium — A (Strip) Tease

Mets 1, Marlins 5

For my thoughts on the game, please check out my post on the Fan Manifesto.

Games Watched: 24
Games to Go: 6
Thuuz Score: 19
Stadium: I go into further detail in my post, but I was disappointed by the stadium. At first pleased with its intimacy — though admittedly off-put by the stadiums bright green color and horrendous centerfield statue — my feelings toward the stadium were immediately soured when Owen pointed out a glitzy bar behind the lower left field seats, which included numerous pole dancers.
Fan Atmosphere: There was little fan atmosphere to speak of. The loudest cheer/reaction came when the Marlins' mascot tackled two racing sea creatures, therefore allowing the third place animal (still undetermined) to seize the victory.
Concessions: Craig and Owen both made their way to the Latin Food stall and ordered some combination of rice, chicken and plantains — a meal that far exceeded my own. During my short perusal of the available options, however, it was clear that the stadium offered many different types of food.
Tim Kurkjian Award: After Ronny Cedeno led the game off for the Mets with a double, second baseman Justin Turner hit a ball sharply toward the right field corner. Giancarlo Stanton was unable to make the play, but Cedeno did not go halfway to third on the ball and therefore had to stop at third. It was the first time any of us had ever seen back-to-back doubles when the lead runner did not score. 
Total Miles Traveled: 12366 miles
Miles to Next Game: 280 miles

Game 23: Yo Adrian!

Rangers 5, Indians 3

By combining statistics from our games in Texas and Cleveland, Rangers third basemen Adrian Beltre is 7 for 8 with a home run, three doubles, a walk, and six RBI.  None of what you just read was a typo.  Even his lone out was a hard-hit line drive that required a diving effort from Indian's left fielder Jason Donald.  For some players this line could be written off as an anomaly, but with Beltre it's further evidence that he is one of the best hitters in the majors.  Earlier this month,  he hit for the cycle and had a three home run game with only a day separating the two games, joining Joe DiMaggio as the only two players in history to do so in the same week.  In August he hit .385 with 7 home runs and 21 RBIs and has forced his way into the American League MVP conversation.  He accomplished all this while also playing Gold Glove level defense at third as evidenced by an excellent diving stop against the Rays and an athletic charging play on a bunt in Cleveland.  At the moment, he is undoubtedly one of the best position players in the majors.

As a Seattle fan, I have a unique perspective on the Texas slugger.  As some of you may know, Beltre is a former Mariner.  He signed a huge contract in 2005 after finishing second in National League MVP voting with the Dodgers.  Seen by most as a budding superstar, Beltre disappointed us all by hitting only .266 and slumping in every other statistical category.  He was then re-energized in 2010 by signing with the Red Sox and spending a year in hitter-friendly Fenway Park.  Now at the age of 33 he has regained almost all of his former luster and is a standout in the heart of the Ranger batting order.

With every screaming line drive off his bat or exhibition of defensive mastery at third, I feel a set of conflicting emotions towards Adrian Beltre.  I am very happy that an entertaining player and overall great person was able to defy conventional wisdom and raise his level of play after turning 30.  With his excellent glovework and trademark ferocious swing, he is a human highlight reel who can singlehandedly make a baseball game more fun to watch.

On the other hand, I am incredibly frustrated that he was not able to produce at this level wearing the colors of my team.  Many statisticians and metrics experts point to an unfavorable home park to explain his five year downturn.  While I accept that Safeco Field is very much a pitcher's haven, something tells me this is not the whole story.  The Adrian Beltre saga fits well with an underlying inferiority complex felt by Seattle sports fans.  There exists a sentiment within many of us that, try as we may, a championship will be forever outside our grasp.  For example, in my lifetime I have witnessed a 116-win Mariner squad fail to beat the Yankees in the playoffs, a Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl effort undone by highly questionable refereeing, a Rose Bowl-winning Washington Huskies football team suffer through a series of horrible coaching hires en route to a 0-12 season, and a Huskies basketball team fail to reach the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament even once, despite playing in three Sweet Sixteen games and once earning a 1-seed.  On top of all that, our only professional team with a championship, the Seattle SuperSonics, relocated to Oklahoma City and has since made the NBA Finals.

As bleak as the Seattle sports scene has been, the entirety of the Adrian Beltre story can actually provide us with some hope for the future.  Written off by some as a contract-year fluke, Beltre proved critics wrong and regained his All-Star caliber play.  A year ago he was an out away from his first World Series title and will again be in position to win one this season.  Maybe the lesson here is that after years and years of disappointment, a hardworking player, or a steadfast city, can finally find success.  After all, the Mariners have a scrappy young squad that has quietly played very good baseball in the second half, Pete Carroll's Seahawks and Steve Sarkisian's Huskies seem primed to take the next step in the NFC and PAC-12 respectively, and Lorenzo Romar just signed a long term contract extension with Washington's basketball team.  There are even rumors that we will acquire an NBA team with the construction of our new arena.

Above everything else, I wish Adrian Beltre the best.  I hope he has a productive and illustrious remainder to his career (except against my Mariners of course).  His tale speaks to players and teams everywhere that for one reason or another have been counted out.  As a fan of a city who is perennially on the outside looking in, Adrian Beltre's career renaissance serves as the vindication that we as fans hope to receive for our perseverance and unwavering support.

Games watched: 23
Games to go: 7
Thuuz score: 37
Stadium: B, A simple no frills stadium with modest views of downtown Cleveland and a well laid out scoreboard. The best takeaway was the center field Hall of Fame area enshrining former Indians greats.
Fan Atmosphere: B-, Apathetic fans seemed to stick around not for the potential Cleveland comeback, but instead for the post-game fireworks show.
Concessions: B+, Reasonably priced ballpark food coupled with excellent desserts made for a good overall fare. Beer selection was broad but lacking in higher quality options.
Quote of the Day: "When I saw you holding a sign I thought it would be something stupid, but that's actually really cool" words of support from a passing Indians fan after reading our 30 in 38 poster.
Tim Kurkjian Award: After striking out for the third time that evening, Rangers outfielder Nelson Cruz splintered his bat by slamming it on the plate in frustration. He was immediately thrown out of the game by the home plate umpire. Without even a word of protest, Cruz trudged back to the dugout as if he simply wanted the rest of the night off.
Total Miles Traveled: 11,126 miles
Miles to Next Game: 1,240 miles (Mets @ Marlins, September 2, 1:10 pm)
Click "Read more" for photos from the day

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Game 22: Loonies and Toonies from North of the Border

Part One (Written by Craig)

After a grueling 19-hour drive, we arrived safe and sound in Toronto, Canada. Every time I have heard someone talk about a road trip across the United States, they have been talking about driving from coast to coast: New York to Los Angeles; Washington D.C. to Seattle, Washington; or even Miami to San Diego. In each of those cases, much of the discoveries or realizations about America have comes from juxtaposing a city on the coast to a small town in middle America. The biggest contrast in culture comes not from comparing where you start to where you finish, but rather from contrasting the journey itself to its endpoints.

We certainly got a taste of what that is like earlier in our adventure, but to me by far the most striking cross-country trip has been the vertical one. Consider our timeline from the past few days:

Around noon on Monday, we were staring at mountains in Juarez less than two miles away on the south side of the Mexican border en route to the Rangers game in Arlington. Three hours later, we ate a late lunch at Angelo's BBQ surrounded by deer heads, moose heads, antelope antlers, and even a full alligator skin.

Game 22; all of us looking a little weary after the grueling drive
By 9 pm on Tuesday, we were in Houston singing our second rendition of "Deep in the Heart of Texas."

At 8pm on Wednesday in Kansas City, Missouri, I had just finished my last full meal before leaving the country: a platter of BBQ Fries topped with shredded pork and an ungodly amount of savory Kansas City original BBQ sauce.

Less than 24 hours later, I found myself paying for an artisan hamburger made with 100% grass-fed beef with a five-dollar bill and a toonie at the Rodgers Centre in Toronto, a three-hour drive north of the border.

Perhaps it was the immediacy of the changes, but while the East-West road trip drastically changed my perception of the geography in America and how it changed across states, the South-North trip revealed  something much more telling about how the attitudes of people change.

In Houston, a middle-aged women scoffed at being on the "Kiss Cam," but after a pause permitted her husband to kiss her hand; In Toronto, Ace, the Blue Jays mascot, wears the equivalent of mascot skinny jeans and, according to the Blue Jays website, his mom "works in the fashion biz as a Goose down supplier." That the culture surrounding the game had changed was not nearly as surprising as the way these cultural differences impacted how fans interacted with the game itself.

Perhaps it was because fans in the last few stadiums we have attended were so passive in their support, but the vivacity with which Canadians displayed their national pride was startling. In what seemed like an extreme effort to demonstrate that baseball is not just an American sport, the centerfield scoreboard profiled (I believe) every native Canadian in the Blue Jays minor league system and updated everyone who arrived to the ballpark early on their stats. Impressively, the Blue Jays' decision as an organization to embrace its Canadian heritage rather than be just a distant extention of America's pastime seems to be working quite well. Though the game was by no means a sellout, the fans who did attend were some of the most animated we've seen. When both national anthems were played, the Star-Spangled Banner was observed respectively, much as anywhere else we have been, but the Canadian anthem was belted loudly and proudly seemingly by everyone in the stadium.

Whereas the vast majority of games we have seen in the US were much a passive experience where fans could sit back and simply watch the game, the experience in Toronto was much more of an involved social event. This social aspect meant two things: first, even though fans cheered more loudly and far more frequently than at any other game, the focus was ultimately on the experience than the game itself, and it was perhaps this latter aspect that contributed the experience that Jeff and Damon describe in part two.

On an unrelated note, after seeing our fourth Rays game, I have to say that Fernando Rodney could well easily be the nicest, most fan-friendly player in the Majors. After having a relatively substantive conversation with him at the Rangers game in Texas about Samana, his hometown in the Dominican Republic (where I lived abroad for a few months), he threw me a batting practice ball. In Toronto, I sought his out again, and this time he supplemented the conversation (much less substantive this time, but he did remember me from Texas) with an autograph.

Part Two (written by Jeff, with help from Damon)

Before this trip began, we wanted to know how many people travel to all thirty major league baseball stadiums in one summer. We knew it was rare, but did not know how rare. From our research, we confirmed that it happens, that it is done by more than a few people per season, but not much more than that. (We also found that while others had done it in 38 days, nobody that we could find had done the full trip, driving and seeing every game, in fewer days than that.) One of the things that we wondered was whether we would hear about anybody else doing it this year, or would cross paths with an individual or group at one of the games, who either had done it before, or was also in the midst of it. We discussed the remote chance that this could happen, and left it at that.

Then, on Thursday night, as Damon and Owen discussed the ballparks we've seen in the elevator at the Rogers Centre before the game, a third man in the elevator looked up at them, but didn't say anything. They kept talking. When the door opened for them to get out, the man finally said, "Are you going to all thirty major league ballparks?" When they said yes, he responded, "Get out of here, so am I!"

It turned out that Tim, who started his trip in April, was indeed the person we wondered if we would ever meet. Toronto was game 25 of his 30 game tour, which he was completing over the course of the season (the major difference: he has a job, so he was doing the tour in stretches, partially flying, partially driving). Tim and Damon quickly exchanged information, and talked a bit more, letting him know where our seats would be so that perhaps we could talk during or after the game.

Two or three hours later, Damon and I were sitting in our section high up behind home plate in the sixth inning (Craig and Owen had decided to go watch from the Rogers Centre hotel room), when Tim showed up, re-greeted Damon, and introduced himself to me. For the final three innings of the game, we just talked.

We talked about our favorite ballparks, our favorite players, the difficulty of scheduling a trip of this magnitude, the best moments we saw, the things to check out at other ballparks, and everything else that we could think of. The conversation was so much fun because we haven't been able to discuss our trip in the manner in which we discussed it with him with anybody outside of our group. This trip had previously always been the focus of discussion with other fans because of its distinctiveness. With him, it was our common ground, and the rest was the distinction, and that is what made it so fun. We got to ask how he planned his trip to Coors Field, since it is in the middle of nowhere, which stadium he had just visited, and where he was headed to next. We got to ask where he sat at each stadium, recalling where we had sat just days or weeks earlier and compare our experiences. And we got to tell stories of the people we met along the way. Perhaps most importantly, we got to talk about chasing our baseball dream. About how, if you're willing to put in the work to make it happen, you can. And if you do, how it's all worth it, both for the experiences that you are guaranteed to have, and the ones you discover along the way.

As we head into the final stretch of our journey, we wish him the best in completing his.

Games Watched: 22
Game to Go: 8
Thuuz Score: 32
Stadium: During the game we remarked that the Rogers Centre must have been incredible 20 years ago. Much like the rest of Toronto's infrastructure, however, the stadium could use a face lift. Given the retractable roof, which in addition to providing natural light allows great views of the city — Toronto's Space Needle towers over the stadium — the Blue Jays could replace the current AstroTurf field in favor of a new grass, or faux grass field.
Atmosphere: There was a decent-sized crowd on hand for the game, which we noticed was full of young people and young women in particular. Both genders were dressed to impress and we guessed that the Blue Jays game was something of a pre-game — imagine the irony! — for the late night crowd, which we discovered later that night on a round-about trip to Tim Horton's. Canadians, it seems, know how to throw down. Unsurprisingly, the crowd took on a festive atmosphere — not dissimilar from Taco Tuesday in San Diego — with many cheers from the crowd, if not all at the correct times.
Scoreboard: By far the most modern aspect of the stadium is its scoreboard, which is among the best around. The placement (above centerfield), picture quality and layout are all top notch, but there could have been far more highlights for our liking.
Concessions: Jeff had a good turkey burger with diced tomatoes and what looked like cole slaw and hummus and Craig had a great 100% grass-fed burger, two things offered by very few other stadiums while Damon and Owen both had chicken tenders which were surprisingly good. We're trying to give the Rogers Centre props for being the only stadium to serve alcohol to Jeff, but whatever good came from that was erased by their souvenir cups which were decidedly lame.
Quote of the Day: "Get out of here, so am I!" -Tim, upon hearing Owen and Damon confirm that we are also traveling to all 30 Major League Baseball Stadiums. Possibly the coolest thing we've heard on this trip.
Tim Kurkjian Award: This one goes to Carlos Villanueva, the starting pitcher for the Blue Jays, who struck out six consecutive batters, starting with Jose Lobaton in the bottom of the second inning and finished with Evan Longoria in the fourth. Villanueva finished the game with just seven total strikeouts and six of them — four short of Tom Seaver's all time record, if you were wondering — happened in a span of six at bats. Yup, baseball is a weird game.
Kilometers Traveled: 17329 km
Kilometers to Next Game: 473 km

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Saturday, September 1, 2012

Game 21: Middle of a Long Drive

Royals 1, Tigers 0

Wednesday morning, we woke up just north of Houston, deep in the heart of Texas, with the rocky deserts of the American southwest finally passing into our rearview mirror. Thursday afternoon, we would be arriving at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, Canada, some 1,700 miles northeast of Houston. In the midst of this one-and-a-half day test of our collective driving endurance, we had a game to watch at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. 

Driving with smartphones and constant cell phone service means you often lose a sense of where you are at any given moment. Want to get from Houston to Kansas City? Say the words "Kauffman Stadium" to your cell phone and follow a series of simple directions, and there you will be, many hours later. Thus, Kansas City felt like a moment of settlement within the great moving abyss that was the drive from Houston to Toronto. Here are three little unrelated stories/thoughts from the game:

-Ten minutes before first pitch, when the other three guys were up getting food, an older couple behind me asked me if I knew the capacity of Kauffman Stadium, as they were trying to estimate. I guessed 35,000 (turned out to be 38,000), and told them it was my first time at the park, and we talked for a minute before I was explaining the road trip to them, giving the short-form introduction we have given to many over the past four weeks. The couple, who were from North Carolina, wanted to know how we knew each other, so I told them that we "go to college together in Vermont." Immediately, she replied, "Do you go to Middlebury?" Surprised, I told her that indeed we did, and she said she thought so. Turns out she had no connections to Middlebury (although she had done some work in the world of academia in her area), but had just pinned me down as a Middlebury student. Pretty cool, considering most people we talk to have never heard of it.

-In one of the early innings, there was a very close 5-4-3 double play turned against Austin Jackson, where we thought that he might have been safe, but the first base umpire called him out. The unusual part was that a replay of the play was shown on the Kansas City jumbotron. One thing we noticed immediately about baseball stadiums is that none of them play the video of close plays. Whether it is a called third strike or a diving catch that could have hit the ground, or a play at first, they never show it. One can understand their reasoning: the MLB likely does not want to give more fuel to the fire of booing umpires for every close call, they do not want umpires to see the replays during the games, and they do not want managers to see the calls in time to come out and argue. Yet for fans, it is incredibly disappointing, and is one of the drawbacks of watching a game in person versus on television. So it was nice to at least see one close play, and as fans, we hope they find a creative solution to the dilemma so that more replays can be shown.

-Kansas City is home to the Negro League Hall of Fame, and my favorite thing about Kauffman was the presence of a recognition and admiration for the Negro Leagues, which showed itself in several forms. Though we missed the introduction to the first pitch, it was thrown by an old black man wearing a Kansas City Monarchs jersey, who it seemed had at least some historical connection to the team. Throughout the game, I saw multiple people wearing Kansas City Monarchs hats and jerseys. At the team store, they sold Negro League hats, not only of the Kansas City Monarchs, but also the Homestead Grays and the Indianapolis Clowns (Damon and I bought two, see right). It was great to see, and unlike any other ballpark thus far. I took a course at Middlebury on the Negro Leagues, and many of my all-time favorite baseball stories and players came from the Negro Leagues (among just those three teams mentioned above were Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Hank Aaron). There are few moments in baseball history I would rather relive than a game featuring some of those greats. I feel that in baseball fandom today, the Negro Leagues are not given their fair share of inclusion into our view of history. For example, when you hear about the best team of all time, why are the 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords, who boasted Gibson, Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson, and manyt lesser-known studs, never put in the discussion? The same goes for questions about the bests-of-all-time, where so many great players forgotten because they were in the wrong league. (For those wondering, by the way, the Negro Leaguers got to play the Major Leaguers in the off-seasons for many years, outside of league play, and the teams of Negro League players proved time and again that they could keep up with the teams of Major League players.) The Negro Leagues were an integral part of baseball history, and I would love to see more recognition of that fact, so I appreciated that it was there in Kansas City.

Games watched: 21
Games to go: 9
Thuuz score: 63
Concessions: Great barbeque fries and beef brisket sandwich. 
New experience of the day: We decided to try to scalp tickets to see what it was like, and did pretty well, getting four tickets, usually priced at $30 each, for $80 total. 
Stadium: My favorite thing about Kauffman stadium was that there was not a bad seat in the house, They designed the upper deck so that it would remain close to the field, and would taper as it went down the baselines, essentially eliminating the nosebleed seat. They did this without sacrificing too much capacity, as mentioned above. No other stadium has as few places where it would be hard to watch a game. Aside from that design aspect, we also really liked the water fountains across the outfield, and the appearance of the stadium in general. 
Southern trend: During one of the inning breaks, the whole stadium joined in the seemingly traditional singing of the Garth Brooks song, 'Friends in Low Places.' It was the third stadium in a row, after Texas and Houston, where they had their own trademark song to define the ballpark experience.
Fan Atmosphere: The most notable part of the fan atmosphere was the friendliness that you could sense from discussions with strangers to reactions from the crowd, to the overall positive mood that was obvious when walking through the concourses.
Tim Kurkjian Award: At one point on a ground ball hit to first base, Prince Fielder bobbled the ball and hesitated, just barely beating Royals batter Mike Moustakas to the bag. As he touched the bag, his momentum carried him into Moustakas, and they collided, bringing each other down--all 490 combined pounds. For a second, there was tension, as it had looked more like a football tackle than an inadvertant collision, but before you knew it, they were hugging and helping each other up. Nice to see.
Quote of the Day: "We got to see a one-zip game, you caught a foul ball, life is good." -A father to his son as they left the game.
Miles Traveled: 9,830
Miles to next game: 1,001 miles (Rays @ Blue Jays, August 30, 7:10pm)

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Friday, August 31, 2012

Game 20: Friendly Confines

Giants 3, Astros 2

As we walked around the concourses in Minute Maid Park we noticed that the stadium's supporting columns were adorned with life-size images of current Astros players. While many Major League teams  use different areas of the stadium to promote their own,and often their very best players, what was remarkable about Houston's choice of decor was how few of the players we recognized. This invariably led to a game of "can you name that Astro?" which quickly became — ok, always was — an uncouth celebration of the team's insignificance. This, a sparse crowd littered with Giants fans, and our desire to see Matt Cain throw a no-hitter meant that we were altogether too harsh on the Astros in the early going.

Around the 3rd inning we took advantage of the empty seats all around us to relocate from the nosebleed seats above the left field line to the upper deck behind home plate. Shortly after we arrived in our new seats, two fans sitting in the row behind us engaged us in conversation about our trip. The best part of these discussions, which we have at nearly every game, is our chance to pick the brains of fans of every team and get their perspective on their team, their stadium, the owner, etc. In this case the fans we spoke with were named Herb and Armando, two longtime Astros fans who had been with the team through the best of times and the worst of times. Talking with them reminded me of one of the countless reasons why we love sports — the feeling that, no matter how bad it is now, things can always get better.

The Houston Astros are the worst team in baseball right now and it's not even close. Not only are they headed towards a 100-plus loss season, but their minor league system is also void of any true talent. Needless to say, the organization has fallen on hard times. And yet, Astros fans have much to look forward to. The team was sold last year and the new owners agreed, as part of the purchase, to move the Astros from the NL Central to the AL West to balance the number of teams in each division and each league. In addition to the move, the Astros will also be changing their uniforms and logos — something that has worked wonders for the Orioles this year — though the team has not yet unveiled the new, or old school look, I hope, of the future. The success of both the Orioles and Rays speaks to the effectiveness of the uniform overhaul.

Joking aside, however, Astros fans can take solace in Minute Maid Park and the great people who work there. At no other stadium have we received as warm a welcome as we did in Houston. Halfway through the game Robert, a member of the Astros' PR department, walked over to our seats and welcomed us to Minute Maid Park and asked us about our trip. He would return to our seats three more times and handed each of us personalized first visit certificates. In between Robert's visits, Jason, an usher, would come over to talk to us and attempt to convince us that Minute Maid Park should be the number one stadium on our list of rankings. Though Minute Maid will not pass Wrigley or some of our other favorite stadiums, it has the friendliest staff of any park we've visited and their hospitality and generosity enhanced our viewing experience. So thank you, Jason and Robert.

Games Watched: 20
Games to Go: 10
Thuuz Score: 93
Stadium: Minute Maid Park is a quirky place, both good and bad. The park does some things really well: the wall and ceiling above and behind right field stretching into center is made totally out of glass, leading to a lot of natural light flooding the stadium; the right field wall is made out of white brick, which recalls the stone used in the old Yankee Stadium. Other things, however, are designed poorly — namely the hill in centerfield and the placement of the American flag, the pole of which is  actually in play.
Fan Atmosphere: This was by far the smallest crowd of any game we've attended, but it's hard to blame them. To their credit, though, the fans that were engaged in the game and stuck around to the very end.
Concessions: The stadium offered a variety of different food options, including a "healthier" Turkey burger, nachos and barbecue. The food was not exceptional, but it was safely in the top half offered at the stadiums we've attended so far.
Quote of the Day: "You two be politicians, you read my mind, and you tell me how much money I can't make." -An usher from last night's game upon hearing that Owen and I are political science majors, Jeff is a philosophy major (which we think she mistaked for psychology) and Craig is a math major.
Tim Kurkjian Award:
I could try to explain this play with words, but I think it's much better done visually. Take a look:

Miles Traveled: 9032
Miles to Go: 745 (Rays @ Royals, August 29th, 7:05 pm)