Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Game 30: Touching Home

30 in 38

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

The delay, unintentionally, has lasted 38 days.

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

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

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

To each of you, thank you so much.


Blue Jays 4, Red Sox 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, October 8, 2012

Game 29: Checking in on Baby Brother

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Game 28: Birdland

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

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

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

1) Always have baseball in mind

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

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

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

2) Create your own baseball "village"

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

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

3) Leverage your surroundings

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

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

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

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

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

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