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)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Game 19: Texas Forever

Rangers 6, Rays 5

As discussed here, there is little that all four of us easily agree on.  We debate everything from sports to politics to music to food and more.  However, one thing we do all agree on is that Friday Night Lights is one of the best television shows of all time.  If you are unfamiliar with the show (shame on you), it chronicles the struggles and triumphs of high school football coach Eric Taylor and his wife Tammy in the football-crazed West Texas town of Dillon.  Beyond being just a masterpiece of modern television, the show paints a particular picture of life in the Lone Star State.  Despite all of the area's problems (the show pulls no punches in that regard), the vast majority of the characters love Texas with a passion that goes beyond normal regional pride.  There is something about this part of the country that causes its inhabitants to wholeheartedly believe that they live in the best place on earth. As we rolled across the New Mexico-Texas boarder, we expected this sentiment to be on display in full force.

A taste of Texas in FNL

I must confess that I slept through a lot of West Texas.  We've had a long few days and I needed some rest.  From what my fellow travelers told me, it came and went much in the way we expected.  The landscape was full of old water towers, oil wells, and cattle ranches.  I got my first taste of the atmosphere when we stopped for lunch in Angelo's Barbecue.  The exterior of the wood structure was plain and could just as easily been found in a Wild West film as downtown Fort Worth.  The interior practically oozed Texas.  Various Lone Star memorabilia coated the walls and hunting trophies were lined up all over the place.  For those of you who have seen the show, I practically expected Buddy Garrity to be chowing down on the beef brisket at the next table.  The fare was excellent by the way for anyone planning a trip through the area.

Lone Star Flags in Center
The Texas love continued when we arrived at Rangers Ballpark.  The outside of the stadium is covered in red, white, and blue banners and carvings depicting the state's historical events.  Inside the stadium we quickly noticed how prominently the Texas flag was flown.  Not only was the flag displayed at the same height as the American flag, there were at least ten of them flapping out in center field.  To top it all off, we enjoyed a rousing rendition of "Deep in the Heart of Texas" in the middle of the 5th inning.  This was the first time all trip where the entire crowd was united in a song other than "Take Me Out to the Ballgame".  The culture in Texas is unlike anywhere else we have visited and attending a baseball game in Arlington is a great way to experience it.

Games watched: 19
Games to go: 11
Thuuz score: 65
Stadium: B+, A interesting closed design that combines some old school looks with new architecture and technology. Scoreboard in right field is huge, as is everything in Texas. Upper deck seats are very far from home plate.
Fan Atmosphere: B, We hoped for a better turnout for a nationally televised game between two playoff contenders, but the fans that were there did a decent job supporting the stadium's constant assertion that Ranger fans were the loudest in the major leagues.
Concessions: B-, The food selection was basic ballpark food at average prices and the beer selection suffered greatly in comparison to the West coast stadiums.
Quote of the Day: "Sports communicate a code, a language of the emotions, and a tourist who skips the stadiums will not recoup his losses at Lincoln Center and Grant's Tomb." This quote is from literary critic and fellow sports traveler Wilfrid Sheed as quoted in The New York Times.
Stat of the Day: David Price threw nine pitches to the first seven Ranger hitters, and gave up two runs. Texas's strategy of first-pitch fastball hitting was quite obvious.
Tim Kurkjian Award: In the second inning, the Rangers had four hits on four pitches, two home runs and two singles. Their lineup is very very dangerous.
Total Miles Traveled: 8,775
Miles to Next Game: 257 (Giants @ Astros, August 28, 7:05 PM)
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Monday, August 27, 2012

Game 18: Getting a Little Help from Our Friends

Padres 9, Diamondbacks 3

Three remarkable events happened yesterday in our "30 in 38 World," and from our perspective Justin Upton's inside-the-park home run was easily the least memorable. And that is definitely saying something, considering it was not only the first inside-the-parker any of us had ever seen in person, but also likely clinched a victory for Damon in our prop bets (he bet everything on it happening).

The first event came in response to the first serious car issue we have faced since the trip began, which was particularly scary given the hot, empty desert we traverse between Phoenix and Dallas. Ironically, the issue (our front bumper was nastily dislodged and ripped by a fire hydrant) happened while pulling in to a Jiffy Lube in Tempe for a car check up. Since it was Saturday and already the early afternoon, finding a place to repair the bump in time for us to drive east into New Mexico that night after the game (or even by Sunday) was impossible. For about two hours, we feared that some delay to our trip was inevitable, and that at best continuing may not have been safe. Serendipitously, however, we happened to be staying with the family of Eric Chalmers, one of Owen’s friends, whose dad, Seth, spent the entire afternoon securing, mending, and reinforcing the bumper to the point of being even sturdier that it was before the debacle began. Given that the game time temperature was easily over 100 degrees, we can only surmise that in the early afternoon thermometers read closer to 110. Definitely an act I will never forget.

Then we got to the game. Much like Petco Park in San Diego, I felt that Chase Field had everything right. It will never have the sense of history that permeates through Wrigley Field, but especially for a one-time visit, Chase Field was a truly unique and interesting experience. For starters, this game was the first we attended under a closed roof. The field, which was built in 1998, was the first retractable-roof stadium built in the United States, and yet everything about the stadium still appears very much state of the art. Even at 5pm, the temperature outside was 105 degrees, hence we were pretty pleased to be in a climate-controlled environment. Within this environment, we had the pleasure and excitement of seeing Justin Upton slam a ball over Cameron Maybin's head in center field, which took an oddly strong bounce off the wall to give Upton just enough time to sprint all the way around the bases.

Right as the game ended, however, we had an encounter that not only topped anything else that happened today, but also in a sense vindicated the mission of the entire trip. To understand the sheer improbability, and therefore the awesome incredibility of the encounter, I need to provide some background info. Way back on August 7th, when we were driving from Pittsburgh to Detroit after the Pirates-Diamondbacks game the evening before, we passed a car (in Ohio) with Arizona license plates and a Diamondbacks rear bumper sticker. Somehow, this prompted the only debate we have had about whether there would be anyone else in the world to see the same games we saw: the Pirates game in Pittsburgh on the sixth and the Phillies-Diamondbacks game in Philadelphia on the fourth. Despite knowing full well that this argument could never possibly be solved, we arrived at the conclusion that while someone else could feasibly have gone to those two games (albeit incredibly unlikely), there was no way that anyone would have seen those two games on that Saturday and Monday and missed the D-Backs game on Sunday, as we did, since in all likelihood the hypothetical fan who would attend both games would be a D-Backs fan.

Flash forward to shortly after the Padres closed out a 9-3 victory over those very Diamondbacks in Arizona, when we noticed two people sitting in front of us staring at our 30 in 38 poster. At first we assumed that Michelle and Drew, the two fans with whom we spoke, were ordinary Diamondbacks fans out to see the game. In fact, Michelle is a die-hard fan who shares our passion for exploring the variety of Major League stadiums. Having heard great things about PNC Park in Pittsburgh, she decided to fly to the Pennsylvania with her son to see the Diamondbacks play in both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh earlier this month.

"You weren't in Pittsburgh on August 6th, were you?" I asked Michelle, excitedly.
"Yes! I remember because Wade Miley was pitching, and we got his autograph in Philadelphia two days earlier when Joe Saunders was pitching," she responded
"So you saw Saunders pitch against Halladay on the fourth?!"

Jeff, Craig, Michelle, Damon, Owen
I was incredulous. First of all, it was amazing to meet someone at the ballpark who not only shared our passion for traveling to see as many stadiums in as many cities as possible, but also had taken the initiative to actually travel to parks they wanted to see. To meet someone who did some of that traveling at the same time we were was even more amazing. The fact that she had not only seen the same three Diamondbacks games as we had, and that we had debated the possibility of someone else attending those exact games made this encounter absolutely absurd. Absurdly awesome. By far the most amazing interaction we have had with anyone at the ballpark, and the highlight of my trip.

Games Watched: 18
Games to Go: 12
Thuuz Score: 40
Stadium: A-; I think that always watching a game in a closed environment could easily get repetitive, and as I said above, the Diamondbacks basically did everything right, given their location in the startlingly hot Arizona desert-climate. I was also amazed at how state-of-the-art it seemed, especially relative to other stadiums built in more recent years like Miller Park, Comerica Park, and U.S. Cellular Field.
Concessions: B+; the food was by and large quite good, and there was plenty of variety, as we sampled food from Panda Express, the Grille, and a gluten-free food kiosk. It was tough the not be on the West Coast anymore from a beer standpoint, though, as the quality and quantity of microbrews greatly diminished.
Tim Kurkjian Award: Justin Upton's inside-the-park home run, which ended the Diamondbacks' 19-inning scoreless drought in games we say them play.
Total Miles Traveled: 7,712
Miles to Next Game: 1,063 (Rays @ Rangers, August 27 7:10 PM)

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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Game 17: A Walk-Off Win on Taco Tuesday

Baseball is a hard-to-predict game. As Jeff wrote in his last post, good matchups aren't necessarily a strong indicator of good baseball. Starting pitchers play a significant role in determining how interesting a game will be, but even then there are few guarantees. Luckily for us, the Dodgers-Giants game lived up to its hype.

But the difficulty of knowing how interesting or entertaining a game will be is just another example of the many differences between baseball and other major American sports. In baseball, the premium placed on individual achievement and the sport's relative single game parity — there are no "upsets" during the regular season because the best teams lose 60-plus times a year and the worst teams win 60-plus times a year1 — means that your Wednesday afternoon game between two last place teams might be more entertaining than the Sunday Night Baseball game featuring the league's best teams. When Felix Hernandez throws a perfect game or Aaron Hill hits for the cycle twice in a week, the rest of baseball looks on, regardless of how important that game was or what we thought of the teams beforehand.

All of this is to say that it was foolish of me to believe, as I did, that we were in for a snoozer at Petco Park on Wednesday night in San Diego. First, however, I would be remiss not to mention how much I enjoyed the Padres' stadium. Petco, which opened in 2004, is as well done as any of the other new stadiums. The structure is sand-colored, which, coupled with the wide, open concourses filled with the aromas of all sorts of different foods creates a light, airy environment. The feel of the stadium, the quality of the food and the great views from the stands make Petco one of the best places to see a game. 

And the game itself! There have been more impressive performances, undoubtedly, but it's hard to say that any other contest was more enjoyable than the game Wednesday night. AJ Burnett, who pitched for the Pirates and who has been enjoying something of a career renaissance, was far from his best. Burnett surrendered 17 baserunners, allowing 12 hits while walking five, but continually made just enough pitches to stay in the game. One out into the seventh inning, Burnett was finally pulled, but only after stranding an astonishing 10 runners. When it was all said and done, the teams combined to strand 22 total runners. 

With runners here, there and everywhere, the game took on a festive atmosphere, though this was probably because we were in San Diego, where tacos turn Tuesday from an ordinary day sandwiched between Monday and Wednesday into a reason to party. 

As the game progressed, each baserunner took on a little more significance and the crowd focused its collective energy on the game. When Burnett was finally removed the game was tied, though not for long as Chris Denofria drove a runner in with a sacrifice fly to regain the lead for the Padres. The home team scored once more in the bottom of the eighth inning to take a two-run lead into the top of the ninth inning.

With a runner on base, Garrett Jones stepped to the plate as the potential tying run having already homered once in the game. Sure enough he deposited a ball over the center field wall — the only hitter-friendly part of the ball park — to tie the game. 

The game appeared to be headed for extras, but with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, consecutive hits gave the Padres runners on second and third. With the Pirates outfield playing in, Padres shortstop Everth Cabrera hit a moon shot to deep center field that hung up in the air just long enough for Andrew McCutchen to make a running catch on the warning track to send the game into extra innings.

The drama certainly didn't end there though. After the Pirates failed to score in the top half of the tenth inning, San Diego made Taco Tuesday a little more exciting. Will Venable singled to lead of the inning and then stole second. The next 90 feet were considerably more relaxed, however, as Chase Headley crushed a 3-2 pitch over the right field wall for the walk-off win. 

The ensuing party at home plate was echoed throughout San Diego, where life became just a little better on Taco Tuesday. 

This is actually a pretty interesting dichotomy. In the NFL people use parity to discuss the relative equality of success between teams on a yearly basis. In a given year, however, there will be an NFL team that wins two games or fewer — it has happened eight times since 2008 and in every season since 2003. And though the NFL has a reputation for big upsets, in many cases, the idea of Any Given Sunday doesn't ring true. In Major League Baseball, meanwhile, parity exists on a game-by-game basis. When you consider that the best regular season team of all time lost 46 times in a single season and the worst team of all time still won 40 games (or 24.7% of the games they played that season) you come to the conclusion that parity exists in both leagues, but in remarkably different ways.   

Games Watched: 17
Games to Go: 13
Thuuz Score: 100
Stadium: Petco is a really well put together park. Jeff and I walked around the entirety of the park and were continually impressed with how many fun and interesting displays there were. At one end of the stadium there's a pitching cage with a turf mound and a radar. (I had my Dennis Quaid in The Rookie moment, hitting 69 mph on the gun before hanging it up). There were also areas dedicated to the history of the military in San Diego as well as the history of baseball in the city. The view from the seats was also tremendous. From the upper deck behind home plate we looked out over "The Park at The Park" — the grassy area in centerfield, which actually extends all the way into the city, making Petco the first (and only stadium to our knowledge) that is open to the city. 
Concessions: Petco boasts probably the best food of any ballpark we've visited. On the lower levels, every concession stand/restaurant is different and is highlighted by the emphasis on local cuisine. The fish tacos were particularly good, but there was all kinds of good food. There was also a beer stand that advertised pretty much any kind of beer you could want — Craig approved.
Scoreboard: Petco also has one of the best scoreboards around. The screen is very large, organizes the necessary information in a clean, concise manner while also providing some great facts about each player — did you know, for example, that Carlos Quentin was on the same high school basketball team as both Mark Pryor and Luke Walton?
Tim Kurkjian Award: In the ninth inning, Garrett Jones homered to tie the game and send it into extra innings. The ball cleared the center field wall, hopped into the Padres bullpen and nestled itself in the sweatshirt pocket of a Padres reliever.
Quote of the Day: "I've seen vendors who have made better calls than that!" -Me, yelling after a vendor publicly, and proudly, expressed his dismay at a call made by home plate umpire Joe West.
Total Miles Traveled: 7,350
Miles to Next Game: 355 (Padres @ Diamondbacks, August 25, 5:10 PM)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Game 16: Focus

Giants 2, Dodgers 1

At Dodgers Stadium we saw two of the best pitchers in baseball, Madison Bumgarner and Clayton Kershaw
Watching a different baseball game in a different city so often can make it difficult to fully engage yourself in every game. Sometimes you just watch, but don't necessarily think. You let the game play out in front of you, but feel that it is somewhat distant, that you do not appreciate it like you would a game of your own team's. This is not to say you aren't interested, or that you are at all bored; just that while baseball is a joy to watch without the extra enrichment, you do sometimes notice the difference of context.

Other times, you get pulled into the action without even trying. You care too much about the performance being played out on the field to notice the conversation going on next to you or the rumble in your stomach. Such was the case for me at Dodgers Stadium Tuesday night. I believe there were four main factors that contributed to making the Dodgers-Giants game the most engaging of the trip for me.

The first factor was the one I knew would influence me going into the game: it was between two of the league's fiercest rivals, and involved a very tight division race. Both the Dodgers and the Giants are title contenders this season, and they share a storied rivalry, from their days across boroughs in New York City, to the recent headlines of fan altercations and beatings. The then half-game separating the two teams in the NL West, as well as the new playoff rules establishing the importance of a division title over a wild card, added to the importance of the matchup. We knew heading into the trip that this might be our most high-caliber game. The baseball world had its eyes on this series, for obvious reasons.

Yet it was certainly more than the context that made this game standout so much to me. Plenty of hyped-up games can turn into bores. Not this one. From the first pitch, you could tell these teams were dialed in, as both pitchers brought their A games. Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers lefty, and one of the top ten pitchers in the league, was working his usual stuff: a plus fastball and a deadly curve, with twenty miles per hour separating the two. In eight innings pitched, the only well-hit ball against Kershaw was Angel Pagan's lead-off double. After that, he was lights out. The catcher was hardly moving his mitt for Kershaw, and the Giants batters could not keep up: two runs scored, ten strikeouts, in eight innings. Kershaw even went a perfect 2-2 from the plate, and added a gritty diving catch (see below). It was an amazing performance. Yet he was out-dueled by the Giants 23-year-old star, Madison Bumgarner, who made one less mistake than him, pitching eight shutout innings and allowing only four men to reach base, all on singles. Bumgarner was simply in command, never losing control of an at-bat or even a pitch. He struck out ten as well, and lowered his ERA to 2.83. Watching these two pitchers go at it, it was clear that they could feel the pressure, that they knew these were the games they were paid to win single-handedly. As a fan, to see two competitors step up for a game like Kershaw and Bumgarner did was an absolute treat. They were enough to keep me in my seat for as long as they could go.

There was an atmosheric factor in play in my immersion as well: the fans came out in droves for the game. On my walk through the gates I picked up a few conversations going on around me, picking up a one keyword that described both the import of the game and the feeling at the stadium: playoffs. The fans were there because their Dodgers were in a playoff race, not because they wanted to play scoreboard games or take their kids to a concourse-playground, like at many games we have attended. Their minds were on the game. They cheered, booed, gasped, and sighed with every turn in the game. The energy was palpable, and contagious.

Finally, the stadium itself was conducive to the big game atmosphere. It holds 56,000 fans, more than any other major league ballpark, and the seats are packed in, keeping the fans close to the action. The concourses are simple, and don't take attention away from the game. Perhaps the most important factor, though, was the location of the stadium, in a little quiet valley north of the city. The hills that form the backdrop behind the outfield have no inhabitants, and so, when darkness sets in, there is nothing to be seen outside the stadium. Somehow, in the second biggest city in the nation, the organization has managed to create isolation. It makes it feel like the Dodgers game is the only thing going on in the world. In a game like this, that is just the way it should feel. 

Games watched: 16
Games to go: 14
Thuuz score: 44
Stadium: There was a lot of divergence within the group on Dodger Stadium. It is not new, and the coloring is a little strange (light blue and yellow), which could be a reason for disliking it. Personally, though, I loved it. It is simple, minimizes the advertisements, and feels unique. The location is also great, with beautiful views of nearby hills and distant mountains before the darkness sets in.
Fan Atmosphere: Very good, as noted above. Few left early (though still a notable amount), and everybody was tuned in to the game.
Food and Drink: Best pretzel of the trip award goes to Wetzel's Pretzels (no relation). Beer was pretty basic.
Scoreboard: The Dodgers showed really cool highlight reels from the team's history throughout the game, and also had the best in-game facts of any team thus far.
Play of the game: In addition to his gem on the mound and his producing of half the Dodger's total offense against Bumgarner, Clayton Kershaw also turned in a brilliant defensive play, dashing twenty feet away from the mound and laying out to catch a pop-up bunt before it hit the ground.
Total Miles Traveled: 7,240
Miles to next game: 110 (Pirates @ Padres, August 21, 7:05pm)

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Week with the Boys of Summer

Thanks so much to Anna G. Stevens for guest writing this post. Anna joined us for a leg of the trip, from Chicago to Seattle, and we loved having her join in on the experience. 

I have been told numerous times that reverse culture shock is significantly more intense than the culture shock one experiences when going to a foreign country. Therefore when I told people that straight upon my arrival in America I was to join my boyfriend Damon and his three friends on a leg of their journey to watch a game at all thirty major league baseball stadiums, I was greeted with reactions of bewilderment. My lack of experience as a sports fan paired with the amount of time I would be spending in a cramped car, trying to get over jet lag and participate in something I had minimal prior knowledge about further compounded the skepticism I was met with. Returning home to America would not be like returning home at all. I was certainly out of my league.

I can attribute a five-month absence from Damon to the reason behind why I wanted to fly to the Windy City and to a sport I knew nothing about—yup I had missed Damon a lot. But, my motives for asking if I could come along did not just stem from my need to see Damon. Befriending Damon, and then subsequently Craig, Owen and Jeff, meant being introduced to a world that was so foreign to me. Two years ago I  knew little about the sports world and had no idea there was even a fantasy one. I didn't understand how sports could be so important—so consuming—that people would remove themselves from their immediate environment, so that they could witness "an important game" or "an important draft." Furthermore it seemed to me that there was "an important game" every three days. How was this possible? I wanted to be on this trip because I wanted to try to understand why and how these guys felt so passionately about this sport—passionate enough to dedicate thirty-eight days to it. I wanted to have first hand experience ant not just live through Damon's commentary. Fortunately, becoming the fifth road-tripper on the 30 in 38 tour changed my perspective, albeit differently than expected and only for baseball, on the accessibility to sports and the culture that comes along with it.

The first stadium I visited in the 30 in 38 tour was Wrigley Field and it was here my interest in baseball started to blossom. The rusted stadium supports, the simplicity of the scoreboard, the hard metal seats and the peanuts, crackerjacks and beer in plastic cups supported in preconceived notions about the baseball experience. To gear up for my immersion back into America I had spent the last week of my semester abroad in Germany watching old baseball classics: Bull Durham, The Sandlot, Angels in the Outfield, Fever Pitch and Field of Dreams. These movies filled my head with images of old baseball fields, rickety bleachers and plain clothes men walking about, a large box on their heads, selling concessions; I came to assume that this was what baseball was like. Wrigley Field exemplified this authentic baseball experience, or at least what I perceived to be the authentic baseball experience. I could not have been happier. Although I was slightly disappointed to learn that Wrigley Field is an anomaly to baseball stadiums, just knowing that this field existed gave me reassurance that my baseball beliefs had some merit to them.  Each game I attended I grew less interested in the experience as a fan and more curious about the sport. I asked questions—what does it mean to throw a no hitter?—I ate hotdogs, hell I even stood up and cheered on my own accord. Welcome back to America.

I did not like the film Field of Dreams when I watched it. I found the acting mediocre to bad, the storyline confusing and the feasibility of it ridiculous. Seriously, why would someone mow down his cornfields to build a baseball field simply because he was hearing voices? When I found out that we were to spend our day off driving many hours to nowheresville Dyersville, Iowa to visit the location where the 1989 classic had been filmed I was super indifferent and believed it would be a waste of time. However, as we drove down the gravel driveway and saw the small, iconic field next to the white farmhouse my cynicism was replaced by understanding. I felt as if, unlike Shoeless Joe Jackson, Archie "Moonlight" Graham and other players in the film, I was transported back into time as opposed to into the future. For me, the importance of the Field of Dreams lay not in the fact that it was used in a Hollywood film, but rather that it evoked nostalgia for the past while making me appreciate my present. I could feel the presence of others who had been there before, the believers and the non-believers who, like me, had that minds changed about America's favorite pastime. I watched Jeff, Damon, Owen and Craig play catch and I understood the truth behind Terence Mann's favorite quote:

"The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh...people will come Ray. People will most definitely come."

Being a part of the 30 in 38 baseball tour has changed my opinion about sports, most specifically baseball, and about my own country in unintended ways. I would say that I did encounter reverse culture shock, but in a very positive way. I discovered the thrill and excitement of going to a sporting event and feeling as if I was a part of it. Outside of high school Nordic skiing and crew races, I have never felt that before. As I stood and watching the American flag blow, while singing along to the National Anthem and looking out onto the Rocky Mountains in Denver or McCovey Cove in San Francisco, I was filled with an unfamiliar sensation: a pride for my country I had never before felt. It was amazing to be in such geographically different parts of American and be able to share the same experience with thousands of other people and to think about the thousands who had been there just the day, or week or year before. Watching a baseball game is like watching a movie made of still frames; the players and stadiums may change, but the ebb and flow of the game will remain the same. The excitement.The disappointment. The confusion. The joy.

I know that in many ways I did not deserve to have ridden along on this journey—I provided little in the way of conversational topics regarding the theme of this trip and I am sure that I paled in comparison to the scores of other sport-enthusiastic friends Damon, Owen, Jeff and Craig have, in recognizing just how cool the whole trip is. But, the beauty of this trip, was that these four guys have made not only their goal—their dreams—attainable, but that they made baseball accessible to me and gave me the opportunity to discover its charm for myself. Over the course of nine days I witnessed a walk-off home run, walked onto the field at AT&T park, saw Barry Bonds, watch an Aurora shooting victim throw the ceremonial first pitch and was able to finally watch a Mariners game at Safeco Field sitting next to my steadfastly-loyal-Mariners-fan boyfriend.

This formerly unfamiliar world now seems a bit more manageable, and a lot less confusing. In a selfish way I wish I was still along for the adventure, but for now I will sit back and, like hundreds of others, live vicariously through their pictures and blog posts.

As Ray Kinsella says in Field of Dreams: "It would kill some men to get so close to their dream and not touch it." I am so happy these four are fulfilling their dream and able to take us along for the ride. It's a pretty special thing.

Game 15: Rounding Second

Rays 8, Angels 3

Note: Our blog was recently mentioned by Middlebury grad Spencer Wright on his own blog, and we were very happy to read what he had to say. Hope you guys check out his blog. Thanks Spencer!

As the four of us left the Angels game on Monday night, we had successfully completed the first half of our thirty game schedule. In the proverbial baseball diamond that is our trip, the end of the Angels game marked our arrival to second base: halfway from home, and halfway to home; a thirty game slate down to fifteen. In light of that benchmark, I was hoping to provide some of our reflections from the midway point. After the game, we discussed the highlights of the trip. I asked four questions, open to the car, and we each gave an answer. They are shared below. As for the game, it was not too exciting, except for the fact that we saw Albert Pujols and Mike Trout, the best hitter of this generation and the best hitter of the next generation, each hit home runs. More on the game in the rundown below this post.

Who was the most exciting hitter to watch?
Andrew McCutchen (Craig)- The Pirates superstar and National League MVP favorite McCutchen put on a show for us in Pittsburgh. He energized the crowd, with his bat and his legs, putting up two base hits and creating a run with his aggressiveness on the base paths. His skill level is electrifying in person.
Yoenis Cespedes
Mike Trout (Owen)- Trout, the best young hitter in baseball, had us on the edge of our seat every at-bat. He delivered with a home run into the right field bleachers, and even his ground-out was exciting because of how fast he looked running down the line. The biggest disappointment of Monday's game was having the final out come with Trout on deck.
Yoenis Cespedes (Damon)- The Cuban outfielder, in his first year in the United States, has the raw power to crush major league pitching. We saw the action the ball gets off his bat multiple times in the two games we watched of his, most notably with his line drive home run to left at the Coliseum.
Miguel Cabrera (Jeff)- If Trout does not win American League MVP, it will likely go to Cabrera. He seemed like the best pure hitter we saw play, knocking in three runs with a double and a home run, and doing it all with his beautiful, effortless swing that seems more perfect in person.

Who was the most exciting pitcher to watch?
Aroldis Chapman (Jeff)- The Reds closer, who has been clocked at 105 miles per hour, threw his fastball at about 99 in the game we watched. His status as one of the best arms in baseball was confirmed by his three strikeouts in a perfect 1.1 innings pitched.
Aroldis Chapman
Mat Latos (Damon)- Another Red, Latos dominated over seven innings in Milwaukee, allowing one run and striking out eight. He seemed to have the most movement on his pitches, considering the number of swings-and-misses we saw.
David Price (Craig)- Price led Tampa Bay to the win in Minnesota, and the young ace seemed to have control of the game from beginning to end. His mechanics, as well as his control, movement, and ability to dictate the game with his arsenal of pitches, make his pitching performances special to watch.
Stephen Strasburg (Owen)- The Nationals ace did not have his usual fastball control in San Francisco, but he showed why he is considered so great by adjusting and beating hitters with his off-speed stuff, then turning to his fastball selectively (and effectively).

What was the most exciting play to watch?
Walk-off home run in Chicago (Owen)- Nothing better than a walk-off home run, and that Jordan Danks did it in a game with playoff implications made it that much sweeter.
Andrew McCutchen
Andrew McCutchen creates a run (Damon)- After a bloop single in the middle of a 0-0 game in Pittsburgh, Andrew McCutchen made a dash for second base when the ball was bobbled. The throw in was mishandled and bounced back toward the outfield, and before it was picked up McCutchen was on third. He then scored on a groundout, giving the Pirates a lead which they would not let up. What stood out about McCutchen was that he knew the team needed a spark, and he willed it to happen.
Russell Martin double in Detroit (Craig)- With the Yankees down three, and Tigers' closer Jose Valverde needing only to strike out .192 hitter Russell Martin to finish the game, Martin doubled home two runs (against all odds), bringing the tying run to the plate. Though the Yankees lost, it added a dose of temporary uncertainty to what appeared to be a done deal of a game.
Aramis Ramirez diving play (Jeff)- With two outs and a man on third late in the game, the Brewers third baseman made a phenomenal full extension catch on a ground ball down the line, then got up and made the throw across the diamond in time to get the hitter, ending the inning, and keeping the Brewers within reach of the game. It was a game they would eventually come back and win, by one run.

What are you most looking forward to in the second half of the trip? 
Going to Marlins Park (Owen)- Marlins Park opened just this year, and it will be the newest stadium we see this trip. It should be interesting to see the state of the stadium-designing world.
Marlins Park
Seeing the Red Sox play (Jeff)- As a Red Sox fan, I have been longing for the last day of the trip, the only time we get to see my team. It's disappointing to not see them play more (we have seen the Mariners and Yankees play twice), but it will make that last game even better.
Staying at the Rogers Centre (Damon)- After an all-night drive from Kansas City to Toronto, we are staying in the hotel built-in to the stadium. The room overlooks the field, an experience unique to Rogers.
Sweet Caroline (Craig)- Since we finish at Fenway, it sets up a special moment in the 8th inning of the final game. With the first 268.5 innings behind us, and 1.5 to go, we will join the Fenway Faithful in their musical tradition, singing Sweet Caroline before the bottom of the 8th, and cherishing our last moments of summer.

Here's to hoping we have the same luck in the second half as we had in the first. Thanks for reading along so far.

Games watched: 15
Games to go: 15
Thuuz Score: 29
Stadium: Angels stadium was a bit disappointing. The waterfall over the rocks in center field is nice, as are the giant helmets outside, but it seems that Angels stadium came just a little too early for the state-of-the-art wave of the 2000s.
Food and Drink: Enjoyed the California hot dogs, the halo dog, and a wide selection of beer.
Fan Atmosphere: We were disappointed with the turnout at the game, which was sub-par. How can you not come out to see Mike Trout during this historical season?
Scoreboard: Angels Stadium might have had the best scoreboard so far. From the pregame videos, which showed highlights from the team's history, to the highlights of comebacks and great plays throughout the game, Angels Stadium was as good as it gets.
Tim Kurkjian Award: With men on first and second, Rays batter Jose Molina walks on a pitch far outside the strike zone. Angels catcher Bobby Wilson steps out to catch the pitch, then throws down to first, attempting to pick off the runner who now has the right to go to second because of the walk. Learn the count, Bobby.
Miles traveled: 7,203
Miles to go: 30 (Giants @ Dodgers, August 20, 7:05pm)

Click "Read more" for more pictures, and for my first half stadium rankings.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Game 14: Every Park Deserves a Second Chance

Athletics 8, Indians 5

After finalizing the trip back in the spring, I can remember the four of us having many conversations about our expectations for the journey. One in particular that comes to mind now is our discussion of the ballparks we were most and least looking forward to visiting. The Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum (now known simply as was consistently on the latter of those lists. The reasoning was pretty logical: an old stadium that doubles as the Oakland Raiders football field, bland appearance both inside and out, apathetic California fan base. Basically we were visiting it because it was one of the 30, but otherwise none of us would ever make the trek to the East Bay for a game. We should have known better.

The Coliseum
Upon arriving in Oakland, we were bound and determined to give the stadium a fair shake despite our perceived flaws. Surprisingly this was easy to do. Qualities that we previously viewed as negative became remarkably charming. The odd shape of the stadium provided us with very interesting perspectives from our second deck seats, the drab concourses and stands focused the fan's attention on the baseball action, much like the highly-ranked Wrigley Field, and the small but passionate group of fans were a pleasant surprise. I left the stadium that day with the sense that like a good book, the Coliseum should not be judged by its cover.

There is also considerably more than meets the eye with the 2012 version of the Oakland Athletics. Inexplicably to most, the A's are deep in contention for one of the two American League Wild Card spots. With a combination of aging veterans (Bartolo Colon, Coco Crisp, Brandon Inge) and exciting youngsters (Jemile Weeks, Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick), this squad sits solidly ahead of teams with more perceived talent like the Anaheim Angels and the Detroit Tigers. While the on-field strategy has changed somewhat, it's easy to see similarities to the bargain-hunting Moneyball system that was made famous in the early 2000s. Situated at his weight bench deep inside the Coliseum, Billy Beane must be pleased with this team.
Late night Moneyball

Speaking of Moneyball, Saturday night's game featured a promotion commemorating Scott Hatteberg's game-winning homerun to cap off Oakland's incredible 20 game winning streak in 2002 that was a prominent moment in the book. As a part of the celebration, the Athletics screened the movie adaptation post-game in the stadium. Since three of us had not yet seen it, we decided to sacrifice some sleep and stick around for the full A's experience. It was almost surreal to be sitting on the center field grass watching film of memorable games played within that very stadium. Definitely an evening I won't soon forget.

Games watched: 14
Games to go: 16
Thuuz score: 18
Stadium: B+, As I mentioned above, it totally exceeded our expectations. Simple construction focused attention on the game rather than flashy gimmicks. Scoreboard was small, but provided good information and took nothing away from the action.
Fan Atmosphere: B+, Tarps that cover the upper deck seats detract from the overall stadium capacity and bring down attendance figures. The fans that did attend were vocal from the first inning and seemed to have a longstanding devotion to the team as we saw many more old jerseys than other parks.
Concessions: A-, Very good sandwiches and Mexican cuisine. Beer selection was excellent, which has been a theme at all western parks.
Quote of the Day: "I'll bet you 500 dollars he doesn't hit a homerun" An unfortunate quote from yours truly in response to Damon's desire for the Indians' light-hitting utility infielder Brent Lillibridge to make the game interesting with a 9th inning pinch hit homerun. Lillibridge put the next pitch over the 388 sign in left center field to bring Cleveland within three runs of the A's. Luckily for me we did not shake on it.
Tim Kurkjian Award: A foul ball hit behind home plate was caught cleanly by a roaming drink vendor just as he emerged from the concourse. Never have I heard a louder applause for a play made in the stands.
Total Miles Traveled: 6,784 miles
Miles to Next Game: 401 miles (Rays @ Angels, August 19, 12:35 pm)

Click "Read more" for photos from the day

Game 13: Chasing Perfection

Mariners 5, Twins 3

Note: We apologize for the delay on the blog, but we have a series of posts on the way in the next two days. We will be caught up before leaving San Diego. That includes additional pictures to come in the posts being put up tonight. Thank you for your patience, and for following along. 

During the middle of the of the Giants game on Wednesday afternoon, Owen sent me a text informing me that Mariners' ace Felix Hernandez was perfect through five innings. I promptly uploaded Twitter on my phone in order to follow Felix's progress.

Before the trip started, one of the things we discussed was the possibility of just missing a great game by arriving in a certain city a day before or a day after a particularly memorable performance. I figured at some point we would miss a a great pitcher's duel or a big comeback; never did I imagine that we would narrowly miss a perfect game, much less one thrown by Felix Hernandez.

As the game progressed — my eyes lit up as I learned that Felix struck out the side in the sixth inning and then again in the eighth — my emotions became more and more conflicted. Did I want Felix to throw the perfect game? Of course. But did I also want to see it happen in person, or on TV at the very least? Absolutely.

Mariners fans have had very little to cheer about over the last decade. Please don't mistake that for a complaint — it's not. As a fan of any team, you should very rarely expect success. There are, in this case, twenty-nine sets of other fans, most of which also won't root for a successful team in a given season or, for some, over the course of a decade. Being a fan of a team — and, as those close to me know, I use the word fan to describe only those very loyal people — is about failure more than it is about success. Those people who expect success, or whose interest or passion is contingent upon the success of their team, are the people who leave a game during the eighth inning or who jump on and off the bandwagon as they please.

But watching a bad team or a losing team is not an exercise in futility. You watch them play to see them improve (you hope) and to better understand the future of the team. You devote time and resources during even the worst seasons because you know — or you think you know — that the painful seasons will make the best seasons that much sweeter. And above all, you watch them play for the same reason you watch any team play — the hope of seeing something in a game that you have never seen before.

And so, with Felix just three outs away from completing the twenty-third perfect game in the history of the Major Leagues I stood up out my seat and legged my way up the steps of AT&T Park into the club area above our seats. Immediately I found an usher sitting in a corner watching the televised version of the Giants' game that I had, for the moment, abandoned. I strode over to him and asked, as politely as I could muster, "Excuse me, is it possible to change the channel? There's a perfect game going on in the ninth inning of the Mariners game." To which he replied, in a get-that-weak-shit-out-of-here kind of way, "Come on man, this is the Giants." So much for that.

I walked the length of the club section, searching in vain for a television that was showing something other than the game that was taking place 30 feet behind me, alternating between watching the televised game in the hope of seeing an in-game update and peeking out to see if the JumboTron might cut to Felix's ninth inning. But in the end, I was relegated to scanning 140-character updates on Twitter, which, of course, chose that time to stop working, to find out if Felix completed the perfect game or not. Ten minutes after I confirmed with Owen that he had indeed, finished the game, AT&T showed the final out on the JumboTron.

Sitting there, I was elated for Felix but in equal part, selfishly feeling hollow disappointment that I missed his performance.

Since Felix's third year in the majors — the first year he showed signs of reaching his sky-as-the-limit potential — it seemed like only a matter of time before he would make a run at a no-hitter. In his second start of the 2007 season, he threw seven innings of no-hit baseball against the World Series bound Red Sox. And then, after approaching the brink of throwing a no-no Felix didn't threaten again — until Wednesday.

Since then I have watched replays of Felix's performance and attended the Mariners' game following his performance, before which the team commemorated his performance. But the hollow feeling in my stomach has remained. At times, it has made me feel almost sick. I wanted to be at his performance; I needed to witness it live on TV at the very least.

Sports fandom is about proximity through experience. Watching your team lose the last game of the season will always hurt more than reading about it the next day; seeing Dustin Ackley slide head first into third base can never be accurately portrayed through an gamecast; and no matter how many times I watch replays Felix's performance, it will never be as special as witnessing it in the moment — sweating out every pitch, calling my dad in between completed innings and above all, feeling the explosion of adrenaline with the final called strike.

The only guarantee you have as a sports fan is heartbreak. Even the most successful fan bases have had their hearts broken. Twenty-seven World Series is no defense for a Luis Gonzalez broken bat single and for most, one World Series only occurs after twenty-seven of the latter.

But on Friday night as the sun set over Seattle and the Mariners took the field, I was reminded that despite all the pain and failure, nowhere do I feel more alive, or more connected, than at Safeco Field.

Games Watched: 15
Games To Go: 15
Thuuz Score: 23
Stadium: A- Safeco features great views of the Seattle skyline and also boasts a retractable roof in one of the country's rainiest cities. 
Fan Atmosphere: B- While Safeco's neighbor, the stadium formerly known as Quest, boasts the loudest fans in the NFL, Mariner fans are of a meeker sort. 
Concessions: B+ Safeco offers a variety of different cuisines and a good, though limited selection, of beers.
Tim Kurkjian Award: Miguel Olivo entered the game 10-21 lifetime against Twins' starter Nick Blackburn. True to form he lined a 419-foot home run over the left field wall on the first pitch he saw. What came next, however we had never seen before. In Olivo's second and third at bats of the game, Blackburn splintered Olivo's bat.
Miles Traveled: 5,975
Miles to Next Game: 809 (Indians @ Athletics, August 18th, 6:05 pm)

"Read more" for pictures

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Game 12: California Dreamin'

Nationals 6, Giants 4

After leaving Denver at 3am and braving the 20-hour drive through Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California before arriving in San Jose, California the night before the Giants game in San Francisco, we could not have been more excited. Making it to the West Coast marked the one-third mark in our trip and the completion of nearly 5,000 total miles driven, but more importantly, it meant we were about to experience the odds-on favorite for best game of the trip.

The major league-leading Washington Nationals were in town to face the Giants, who entered the game tied for first place in the NL West. What's more, the pitching matchup featured former Cy Young-winner and amateur contortionist Tim Lincecum and perhaps the most electric pitcher in baseball today, fireballer Stephen Strasburg. Moreover, at AT&T Park we were treated to so much more than just a marquee matchup between first-place teams; we were also given a guided tour of the stadium, scoreboard room, broadcast room, pre-game field access, and club-level seating.

Thanks to the generosity of Damon's uncle, the Project Executive for the construction of the Giants' stadium, and of the Giants organization, we had what was undeniably the highlight of our trip thus far. In many ways, the photos speak for themselves. As with most of this trip however, there are so many intangible features that a still frame can never capture: the openness and genuine interest from Giants fans and employees alike; the sense of vindication and accomplishment we got from seeing the palm trees the sprouted up from behind the Coca-Cola bottle/slide in left field, a sure sign that we had finally arrived on the West Coast, after driving through countless miles of corn fields, mountains, and desert; and the omnipresent (and perfectly-struck) balance between history and modernity that permeated throughout the ballpark.

We were able to see the Giants' 2010 World Series Trophy, feel a Barry Bonds game-used bat, and examine memorabilia from both Matt Cain's recent perfect game and Willie Mays' heyday when the Giants first moved to San Francisco from the Polo Grounds in New York.

Shrine to Matt Cain's perfecto
Old game-used bats

12 down, 18 to go; wearing our brand-new T-shirts
To top off the whole experience, Damon's family even designed "30 in 38 Project" T-shirts, which not only looked amazing, but also provoked a record number of conversations with other fans and members of the Giants' staff. As soon as we do our next laundry cycle, we have made it a priority to make sure that at least one of us is wearing the shirt for each game. 

Games Watched: 12
Games to go: 18
Stadium: A; the Giants handled every feature of the ballpark beautifully. The giant glove in right field was an excellent feature, and even the Coca-Cola bottle/slide next to it provided both a unique ballpark feature and entertainment for smaller children without blocking too much of the view of the San Francisco Bay marina or being too much of a distraction

Atmosphere: A-;
Concessions: A;
Tim Kurkjian Award: as
Miles traveled: 5,110
Miles to next stop: 810 (Twins @ Mariners, 7:05 on 8/17)

Click "Read More" for more photos (you really don't want to miss these!)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Game 11: Arguing Our Way Westward

Rockies 9, Brewers 6

Note: This post has nothing to do with the Rockies game. Some reflection on that will come in the quick-hit section at the bottom. One of our goals on this trip had been to discuss the dynamics of a sports roadtrip at a personal level. I hope that our personal story here at least leans slightly toward the universal. Also, this post is followed up with a small summary of our off-day trip to the Field of Dreams ballfield in Iowa, so please read onto the next page if you are interested. 

During the fifth inning of what had become a lackluster game at Coors Field in Denver tonight, I realized that the four of us on this roadtrip argue a lot. More accurately, I realized that argument is our dominant form of interaction, and that the subjects of argument range endlessly.

At the time, this endless range was showing itself, as our argument was among the silliest imaginable. We were discussing whether or not it would be possible to coast on a bicycle from Denver, where we had just arrived, to the Colorado-Nebraska border, some 150 or so miles east, from which we had driven. The question had come up when we realized that we had gotten to Denver, the Mile High City, without going over any big mountains, but rather by going on "150 miles of gradual uphill," almost just a slanted upward plain. Or that's how it was first described. But, if it was really all gradual uphill, somebody could coast the whole way to Nebraska. And to the intuitive mind, that seems unlikely. So, naturally, after the claim was made, it was questioned ("You couldn't actually do that, there were some hills, it was just generally uphill."), and then immediately defended ("Actually, he might be right, those little uphills all came after bigger downhills.").

Then all bets were off, and the reasons for each side came flying in.
"As long as you start with a big enough downhill, and you're bike is low friction, the downward trend will be enough to keep you going. It's physics."
"But you have to brake in certain places, to maintain control, and to turn."
"I don't even know if that would be a problem, can you remember a single hill we went over?"
"There was that one by the water"
"Yeah but that came right after a downhill."
"What makes you think you could even bike on that road? It's a highway."
And so on, for ten minutes, until we were micro-analyzing the logic of each side, looking to latch on to the slightest contradiction to settle the matter. In this case, there was no settlement; we remain split on the question.

The point isn't the argument, though. This much was probably clear from the content of the dialogue above; who really cares if you can coast from Denver to Oklahoma? None of us did. The point is, that didn't matter. This is just what we do. All the time.

It doesn't take much for it to start. Somebody will make a claim, like the "all uphill" claim above, or will look up from a moment of thought and say, "I wonder if..." or "Do you think...", completing his sentence with some hypothetical or speculation about anything in the world. Then we align based on our initial reaction, explain why we have so aligned, and the argument begins. The most common topic is baseball--comparing players, evaluating trades, explaining trends--but just about anything can serve as our subject.  Take some examples:

  • Today in the car, I told Damon I thought Matt Holliday, the Cardinals outfielder, was underrated, and that he was one of the top ten or fifteen hitters of his era. Damon wasn't so sure, and opened the question up to the car. For the next hour, we were bringing up names of other top hitters, discussing their careers, looking at their statistics online, and trying to see how much we could agree upon in our evaluations. For example, there was no dissent on the claim that Holliday was below Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, and David Ortiz over that time. After that, there were some questions. By the end of the discussion, though, we had agreed that Holliday had to be considered at least one of the top ten hitters of the era. In the meantime, we discussed the value of at least twenty other of the great hitters of the past decade. 
  • At the Twins game on Saturday, Damon and Craig took opposite sides of the question of the best hitter in Minnesota's lineup. Craig believed it was Joe Mauer, who is hitting well over .300 and has been consistently great for the Twins. Damon said it had to be Josh Willingham, the breakout player who is leading the Twins in every power category, and is near the top of the league in home runs (29) and runs batted in (85). After their initial shock at the other's position, the two discussed everything about the two players: their positional values, their wins above replacement, their projections over the next half season, and their projections going forward in their careers. Craig agreed that Willingham had better statistics over the first two-thirds of this season, but maintained that Mauer was the better hitter going forward. 
  • About a week ago, Damon was reading Grantland columnist Bill Barnwell's advice to bettors on the upcoming NFL season. Damon told me that Barnwell picked the "under" on a line of 12.5 wins for the Patriots, on the basis that it is unlikely any team lives up to that sort of preseason hype. I took offense, being a Patriots fan, and also thinking that Barnwell's reasoning was flawed. I said that I would agree with that reasoning for most teams, but not the Patriots: their success over the last decade shows that they can and do live up to the hype. Damon replied that Barnwell's betting strategy holds up generally, and I (now joined by Craig, a Jets fan) explained that it's different when almost every Brady-led team has lived up to the hype, and this year's team is expected to be as good as any since 2007. We cited statistics, but we more analyzed the logic of Barnwell's argument, his intended meaning, and its implications. About half an hour later, the three of us had agreed that it might make sense to take the "under" on the 12.5 line, but it would have to be for a reason more convincing than the weak general principle that Barnwell cited.
  • While walking through a grocery store parking lot in the midwest, Damon and I asked Owen and Craig an ultimate Hollywood football hypothetical: If you could pick from the legendary Alexandria High School football team from Remember the Titans, as well as from the Dillon Panthers and East Dillon Lions teams from Friday Night Lights, to create your ultimate starting offense and defense, which players would you choose at each position? Damon and I had discussed this a few weeks earlier and come to a general agreement. We were shocked when Owen and Craig decided they would put Vince Howard, the East Dillon Lions scrambling quarterback, under center instead of the Titans lefty Ronnie "Sunshine" Bass. Damon and I argued that Sunshine was a far better traditional quarterback, that he had a better arm and better accuracy. Moreover, Vince, the superior athlete, could be put at running back, next to Sunshine, and he would lose very little in marginal effectiveness. And so we went on, analyzing their games, making NFL comparisons, citing certain scenes where a certain skill was displayed, before realizing that we had made just about every point that was left to be made and we still disagreed. If only our two imaginary compilations of fictional teams could play each other, we thought.
At this point, our roadtrip might sound completely insufferable. All we do is argue about stupid stuff for way too long. But to even think of it as argument, as I have, isn't quite right. It is more like a spontaneous debate, or a clash of conflicting ideas, in which everybody knows that the discussion is going on in the abstract, not the personal, sphere. And much is gained in the process. First of all, we usually come to an agreement at the end. We realize that four heads are better than one, that somebody else thought of something in a way we never had, or that one of us used better reasoning than another. If we don't end up agreeing, as is sometimes the case, the issue always seems to be more clear to each of us than it was at the beginning. We get closer to the heart of the issue, or to the truth. And we learn about our way of thinking and presenting ideas in the process. The key is that we know each other well, we know we all have interesting ways of thinking, and we know we don't have to worry about offending somebody simply because we present a counter-argument to their position.

We do it because we want to figure out the answers to our questions, because we like testing our arguments, and because it is fun to see where the conversation goes. Most of all, we do it because we appreciate the value of discussing ideas for the sake of discussing ideas.

We are caricatures of ourselves, four liberal arts students driving around the country and writing on a blog, feverishly caught up in abstract discussions about (seemingly) meaningless and esoteric topics.

We think, for the sake of thinking, and we discuss, with no tangible product in mind. We did not set out trying to do this, but it seems to be our collective nature. Liberated from our normal daily pursuits, an intellectual adventure ensues. A microcosm indeed.

Games watched: 11
Games to go: 19
Thuuz score: 13
Play of the day: A tie between Aramis Ramirez' diving catch on a bunt that popped up down the third base line, and relief pitcher Adam Ottavino's behind the back snag on a sharp ground ball hit up the middle.
Stat of the day: Home teams are now an amazing 9-2 in our first 11 games.
Accomplishment of the day: At the beginning of this trip, we decided to see if we could spot a license plate from every state on our trip, and if so, how soon. Going into today, we had 40 out of 50. On the way to the game, we had our most successful run yet, knocking out every plate except Alaska and Vermont. Then, as we were leaving the game, Craig spotted a Vermont plate in the other lane. One to go.
Stadium: A typical stadium in most respects with an incredible view of the Rocky Mountains from the first base side and the outfield. The scoreboard had all the right info on it but the font and color choice made it hard to read. The pre-game pump-up video on the scoreboard was great, though.
Atmosphere: The Rockies faithful have fallen off the map since the days of attendance records in the 1990s, when the franchise's youth was sparked by the Blake Street Bombers, and the fans came out in droves. At this game, the attendance was very low, and the empty seats were the runaway majority.
Food and Drink: Great. From fresh salads to cheesecake to fruit-kabobs to inexpensive ballpark fare, Coors was as good as any stadium on the food front. Beer was stellar, best we have had yet, according to Craig and Owen. Not only do they feature microbrews, but as they own Blue Moon, Coors is able to offer a better array of premium beers.
Tim Kukjian Award: Two relief pitchers bat in a nine-inning game.
Quote of the day: "If the the team was good, and the game was good, and there were people here, this would be really awesome." -Craig, on the empty theatre for beautiful baseball that is Coors Field.
Miles traveled: 3,430
Miles to go to next game: 1,350 (Nationals @ Giants, 12:45)

"Read more" for a recap of the driving day between Minneapolis and Colorado, during which we stopped at the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa. Following that are pictures from the last two days.

Monday, August 13, 2012

One Third of the Way Home: More Thoughts and Reflections

While we have only been on the road for 10 days, one third of the total number of games on our trip have come and gone. We spent yesterday traveling through Iowa and Nebraska which allowed for some reflection. Using the same scoring system from the first week, we ranked the last 5 stadiums. Again we had lots of difficulties coming up with the list because despite some minor drawbacks, the experience at each ballpark has been fantastic.

We score stadiums in the following five categories: stadium design, scoreboard/music, concessions, atmosphere, and the game itself. Overall rankings are then determined through the combined average of these scores. To clarify, stadium design deals with both the architecture and placement within the city, concessions are food and drink, and game is a measure of quality of play only. In case you missed it, here is the ranking of the first five stadiums.

1. Wrigley Field, Chicago
Stadium Design: 1st
Scoreboard/Music: 2nd
Concessions: 4th
Atmosphere: 1st
Game: 3rd
There is no other experience in baseball like attending a game here. The stadium practically oozes baseball history and lore. The lack of a state-of-the-art JumboTron and loud blaring music makes the Wrigley Field experience all about the game in its purest form. Fan support from the Northsiders was excellent despite the lack of talent on their team. The only downside was that the food seems to be trapped in the 1950s as well.

2. Target Field, Minnesota
Stadium Design: 2nd
Scoreboard/Music: 3rd
Concessions: 1st
Atmosphere: 2nd
Game: 5th
A nice, new stadium well situated in downtown Minneapolis. Target Field sports an excellent video screen and some of the best stadium food you can find anywhere for very reasonable prices. Twins fans showed a remarkable amount of attentiveness and passion, even in late innings when they were behind.

3. Miller Park, Milwaukee
Stadium Design: 3rd
Scoreboard/Music: 1st
Concessions: 5th
Atmosphere: 3rd
Game: 2nd
Our first retractable roof stadium of the trip. Miller Park has the best scoreboard we have seen in terms of clearly providing the appropriate information and avoiding gimmicky animations. Even on a Wednesday day game, the Brewer faithful showed up in force and willed their team to victory in the late innings.
4. US Cellular Field, Chicago
Stadium Design: 5th
Scoreboard/Music: 5th
Concessions: 2nd
Atmosphere: 4th
Game: 1st
The Southsiders love their White Sox, but there are few appealing characteristics in the bland US Cellular Field. Their scoreboard is heavily biased towards the home team and too complicated. Low priced concessions, an excellent game, and the post-game fireworks helped the score significantly here.

5. Busch Stadium, St. Louis
Stadium Design: 4th
Scoreboard/Music: 4th
Concessions: 3rd
Atmosphere: 5th
Game: 5th
The turnout may have been depressed by the weekday day game and high temperatures, but even then it was pretty disappointing. Busch Stadium is coated in Cardinal red, but other than the view of the St. Louis Arch in center field it has very few redeeming qualities. The food and beer selection was excellent if you have the money to pay for it. A slow game lowered the ranking.