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)

Click "Read more" for pictures from the day

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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