July 31, 2014 [LINK / comment]
The Wild, Wild West! Baseball road trip 2014
I may not have set any records as far as number of stadiums, but I definitely covered more highway miles than in any of my previous baseball-focused road trips. Altogether, I tallied 6,861 miles over the course of six weeks, venturing far into the desert southwest. During these two months, I saw two Major League stadiums for the first time -- Globe Life Park in Arlington and Chase Field in Phoenix -- as well as one new collegiate stadium: TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha. I also visited a few small-town ballparks along the way, including one that was just a stone's throw from the Mexican border. Finally, I attended three MLB games, two of which were in stadiums I had previously seen.
The four Major League stadiums I saw in June & July 2014 (clockwise from top left): Globe Life Park, Chase Field, Kauffman Stadium (in Kansas City), Great American Ballpark (in Cincinnati).
Nationals move into first place
Just before I left town in the middle of last month, the Washington Nationals had shown signs of improvement, and by the All-Star break they were sharing first place with the Atlanta Braves. Jordan Zimmermann was supposed to make the trip to Kansas City (where the American League won the Midsummer Classic), but he had strained his bicep and was replaced on the National League roster by Tyler Clippard. Actually, the two best Nats pitchers this year have been Tanner Roark (now 11-6) and Doug Fister (10-2), who was on the DL until mid-May. His presence has been a huge benefit to the team. Likewise, the return in June of Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper to the active roster (after recovering from thumb injuries) has helped the Nats greatly. With a full, healthy lineup at last, the Nats started to produce runs on a consistent basis, while the bullpen generally held the lead in the late innings of most games. Since the All-Star break, the Nationals have taken sole possession of first place in the NL Eastern Division.
Yours truly enjoying a great game at Great American Ballpark, this past Sunday.
It was in that context that I saw the Nats play in Cincinnati against the Reds last Sunday afternoon. It was only my second game at Great American Ballpark, and the previous time (2004) the team now known as the Nationals was still playing in Montreal, as the Expos. How time flies! The weather that day was threatening, and indeed I had to brave terrible thunderstorms that morning in Kentucky on my way up to Cincinnati. But the sun came out just as the game was scheduled to begin (1:10), and they got the whole nine innings done with barely a sprinkle. It was a pitcher's duel early on, as Doug Fister put on a masterful performance. In the fifth inning a single by Nats' second baseman Danny Espinosa sparked a big rally. Reds' pitcher Mat Latos got shaky, walking two batters and hitting another one with a pitch. The rally was capped when Adam LaRoche hit a two-run single to left field, making it 3-0. The next batter, Ian Desmond hit a towering fly ball to center field that was caught right in front of the fence. A few more feet and it would have been a 6-0 game. In the ninth inning, Anthony Rendon batted in an insurance run that proved to be very useful. In the bottom of the ninth, Aaron Barrett took the mound, but he gave up singles to the first two batters and was immediately replaced by the regular closing pitcher Rafael Soriano. The very next batter, Devin Mesoraco, doubled to deep left-center field, making it a whole new ball game, with the score 4-2. Oh, no, here we go again... Fortunately, Soriano settled down and got the next three batters out to end the game. Whew!
Doug Fister, preparing to pitch.
Before and during the game, I made note of several details that had escaped my notice the last time I was inside GABP ten years ago. For one thing, there is a disjuncture between the lower deck main grandstand and the lower deck in left field, where the "pitch" (slope) is steeper. Also, the upper deck bleachers in left field are shaped slightly irregularly. Minor diagram fixups to come...
Royals climb into contention
One nice surprise of the 2014 season is that the Kansas City Royals have made themselves into a contending team. They're 54-52 right now, just five games behind the AL Central leading Detroit Tigers. I saw the Royals play the Cleveland Indians last Friday night, when it was very hot and muggy. The home team took and early lead, but then the visitors tied it. The crucial play in the game was when the slugging star Billy Butler (who was pinch hitting, after being benched) came through with a dramatic two-run homer deep into the bullpen in left field. And I captured the event on camera! The Royals held on to win, 6-4.
Billy Butler hits the go-ahead home run in the eighth inning.
Virginia makes it to CWS finals
The University of Virginia Cavaliers made a great effort in the 2014 College World Series in Omaha, making it to the final three-game series for the first time, but ended up a close #2. In Game 1 was a blowout victory by Vanderilt, but U.Va. tied the series in Game 2. In the deciding game, the game was tied 2-2 in the eighth inning when Vanderbilt's John Norwood hit a solo home run that proved to be the deciding play. See ncaa.com. The U.Va. Cavalier baseball team deserves great credit for fighting back and going all the way to the final out. "So close, and yet so far!"
I was hoping my travel plans might coincide with the CWS schedule, but it just didn't work out. I made a point on my return trip (en route to Kansas City) to stop at beautiful, modern TD Ameritrade Stadium for the first time. It replaced the venerable Rosenblatt Stadium south of downtown Omaha in 2011. (See blog posts from June 2011 and August 2009, when I stopped there briefly.) Strangely, however, Omaha's minor league team (the Storm Chasers, the AAA affiliate of the K.C. Royals) does not play there but instead at a smaller ballpark several miles southwest of Omaha. Go figure.
TD Ameritrade Park, showing the CWS 2014 banners. (July 25, 2014)
June 17, 2014 [LINK / comment]
Matt Adams sweeps the Nats
If the Cardinals' first baseman Matt Adams had spent another week on the disabled list, the Washington Nationals might have done much better in St. Louis this past weekend. But Adams' three home runs in three days proved to be the decisive factor, and the Nats got swept by the host Cardinals. So much for the Nats' rising hopes! In Friday's game, Jordan Zimmermann pitched a complete game (eight innings), giving up only three hits, but one of those hits was the (first) home run by Adams, and that's all the Cardinals needed to win. Their pitcher Lance Lynn only allowed two hits by the Nationals.
On Saturday night (broadcast by FOX), the Nats jumped to an encouraging 1-0 lead in the first inning, thanks to hits by Anthony Rendon and Jayson Werth, but then virtually no offense at all after that. ??? Stephen Strasburg pitched well for six innings, but lost steam in the seventh and was tagged with his fifth loss of the year. Once again, Matt Adams ruined everything with a leadoff solo home run, sparking a St. Louis rally.
On Sunday, Nats pitcher Doug Fister had troubles early as Matt Adams homered again in the second inning. (Why did they even pitch to him???) Meanwhile, the Nats' batters got nearly as many hits as the Cardinals (8 vs. 9), but just couldn't come through in the clutch, and the team fell 5-2. That completed the deeply disappointing sweep at the hands of their nemesis the Cardinals. Since 2008, the Nationals's record in St. Louis is a pathetic 2-18. Does NLDS Game 5 in 2012 still haunt them?
[And so, the Nationals now have a 35-33 record, tied with the Miami Marlins and one half game behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL East, as in the least competitition division in the majors. (Get it?) Pretty lame, given the talent the team possesses on an individual basis. Get well soon, Bryce Harper!!!]
Nats almost sweep the Giants
The Nationals' recent hot streak continued last week in San Francisco, as they beat the Giants -- the team with the best win-loss record in all of baseball -- in the first three games. If that series was a test of character and gumption, the Nats passed with flying colors. Monday was a slugfest, as Stephen Strasburg cruised to his sixth win of the season with a 9-2 final score. Doug Fister pitched seven scoreless innings on Tuesday night, outdueling the formidable Madison Bumgarner in a razor-close game; Nats 2, Giants 1. And then on Wednesday, Jayson Werth provided the winning edge with a home run and three RBIs, giving Tanner Roark the win in a 6-2 game.
That put the Nats six games over .500, the highest of the season. Could they keep it up? In the fifth inning on Thursday, it looked like they were indeed about to pull off a rare four-game sweep, one run behind with runners at the corners and nobody out. But the rookie pitcher Blake Treinen couldn't lay down a bunt, and then Denard Span grounded into a double play to end the inning. The Giants added to their lead in the late innings and won 7-1, as the Nats bullpen crumbled. So, the Giants averted an embarrassing sweep at home.
Other divisional races
Among the biggest surprises in the 2014 divisional races has been the Kansas City Royals, who are nipping at the heels of the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central Division. They have won eight in a row, the hottest team in baseball right now. K.C. had an 11-2 lead over the Tigers last night, whereupon rookie pitcher Donnie Joseph gave up six runs, making it 11-8. Michael Mariot then got the final out on four pitches. And that's how the Royals closed to within a half game of the division leaders. The Tigers have had an up-and-down year thus far, and the next two games of that series in Detroit will be extremely tense.
And how many people expected the Toronto Blue Jays would lead the AL East? Not me. I thought the Orioles would be contending again, and I had no idea how the newly configured Yankees would perform. In both cases, just so-so, it would appear. The poor Red Sox lost ten in a row a while back, a stunning reversal from their consistent excellence of the last decade or so. David "Big Papi" Ortiz still wows the crowds with big clutch hits from time to time, but the loss of Jonathan Papelbon and others has hurt the Red Sox chances.
In the National League Central Division, the Milwaukee Brewers are doing just fine without Ryan Braun, who was suspended for the whole year due to a positive drug test. The Brew Crew is currently 42-29 (.592), but the St. Louis Cardinals are closing in fast, thanks to the weak-batted Nationals.
On the far-away (!) west coast, the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics have cooled off a bit lately, but both still hold commanding leads in their respective divisions.
I learned from my brother John about Lonnie Chisenhall of the Cleveland Indians, who went 5 for 5 last week, with 3 runs scored and 9 RBIs. "How about that?"
R.I.P. Tony Gwynn
We had a big shock yesterday, when we learned that long-time San Diego Padre slugger Tony Gwynn died following a bout with cancer of the saliva gland. He used chewing tobacco for many years, and just couldn't kick the habit. "Gwynn's .338 career batting average over 20 seasons -- all of them with the Padres -- is the highest since Ted Williams retired from the Red Sox in 1960 with a .344 average." Pretty amazing. See MLB.com.
Like Cal Ripken, who entered the Hall of Fame in the same year, Gwynn was not only a superb athlete but was also a hard-working player who earned the deep admiration and affection of millions of fans. Nats pitcher Stephen Strasburg is from the San Diego area, and he got to know the Padres' superstar while he was a teenager.
Why do people start with chewing tobacco in the first place? I suppose the nicotine calms the nerves or something, but the price is just too high. As one who has lost a dear family member to the evils of tobacco, please folks, "just say no."
R.I.P. Don Zimmer
Baseball icon Don Zimmer passed away last week at the age of 83. He was a member of the first-ever championship Brooklyn Dodgers team, in 1955. He later joined the Washington Senators in 1960s, and managed four major leagues teams. He was perhaps best known as a coach of the Yankees from 1996 to 2003, gaining gained fame when he got into a scuffle with Bosox pitcher Pedro Martinez in the 2003 Yankees-Red Sox AL League Championship Series. He was a jovial character who had lots and lots of baseball wisdom. For more, see the Washington Post obituary.
In April, former Angel (!) shortstop Jim Fregosi joined the Heavenly Host. [After playing with the Halos (1961-1971), he moved around and later became a manager, leading] the Philadelphia Phillies in 1993 when they went to the World Series.
In February, former Pirate Ralph Kiner passed away. The slugger was with Pittsburgh from 1946 to 1953, and later played with the Cubs and Indians. He had 389 career home runs and a .279 batting average.
And finally, Ruth Ann Steinhagen, who shot Chicago Cub player Eddie Watkins in 1949, passed away recently. She was the inspiration for the romantic subplot in the movie The Natural, and served time in prison for the crime.
College World Series 2014
The University of Virginia Cavaliers baseball team won their first game in the 2014 College World Series game, at TD Ameritrade Stadium in Omaha. They had a 1-0 lead with a no-hitter going late into the game, but the Ole Miss tied it in the eighth inning. Then, in the bottom of the ninth, Mike Papi (not related to David Ortiz) belted a double into the right-center gap, driving home the winning run from second base. A rare and thrilling walk-off victory in the CWS! The round-robin series may extend through Saturday, then they have Sunday off, followed by the final championship series on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.
Catching up on ballpark news
It's been a long time since I have properly documented the news related to baseball stadiums, so here goes a heroic attempt to catch up. Several of these items are courtesy of Mike Zurawski, but others are from Facebook friends or other fan sources. Even though I have fallen even further behind in my e-mail correspondence in recent months, I do appreciate all tips and inquiries from fans.
New stadium for Braves!?
One of the biggest pieces of ballpark news in recent months was the announcement by the Atlanta Braves that they have reached an agreement with officials in Cobb County, Georgia to build a new stadium next to an interchange north of Atlanta. It would begin operations in 2017 (after the Braves' 20-year lease on Turner Field expires), part of a big suburban entertainment complex. Since Turner Field is not even two decades old yet, that idea strikes me as just plain dumb. For the time being, I'll assume that's just a bargaining tactic to squeeze money out of Atlanta to renovate Turner Field. See the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for an artist's depiction and discussion of design issues.
Roof on Nationals Park?
Speaking of dumb ideas, the owners of the Washington Nationals proposed to D.C. officials building a roof over Nationals Park to minimize rain delays and cancellations. With afternoon thunderstorms in the D.C. area a commonplace phenomenon, there is at least some grounds for such an idea. But it would ruin the ambience, and besides it would cost $300 million, which is way too much. And rightly so, the D.C. officials rejected the proposal outright. See bizjournals.com.
Angel Stadium changes
In Anaheim, outfield dimensions at Angel Stadium changed, but not really. The left-field line which had been marked 330 feet now says 347, left-center has gone from 387 to 390, center field changed from 400 to 396, and the right-field sign has changed from 330 to 350. Neither home plate nor the fences moved, however, they were simply complying with an MLB directive that outfield markers correspond to the actual distance at which they appear. Advertising signs added in recent years had forced a shift in the locations of the signs away from the foul poles.
While checking that out with my diagrams, I noticed that the bullpens are about 15 feet too short, and the angles of outfield fences and seating sections are slightly off as well. Stay tuned for a correction!
League Park returns!
In Cleveland, work is proceeding quickly on a $6.3 million restoration of the grounds where League Park once stood. (When I was there in 1998 part of the grandstand was still intact, but all that's left now is the office building and one exterior brick wall. A diamond has been laid out in the same place as the old one, and a chain-link high fence in right field has been built to resemble the original. Unfortunately, they are using artificial turf to keep maintenance costs down. The project is expected to be completed this summer. See cleveland.com
Dodger Stadium "shrinks"
The new owners of the Los Angeles Dodgers are continuing their efforts to improve the venerable, half-century old Dodger Stadium. They have expanded the Field Level entrances and relocated the visiting team clubhouse. See MLB.com. Big tips of the hat to Mike Zurawski. Mike also informed me that Dodgers President Stan Kasten admitted that Dodger Stadium has been reduced, without being specific. Mike notes that the largest crowd announced last year was 53,275, which is 2,725 fewer seats than the permanent "official" capacity of 56,000. See latimes.com.
My apologies to Bob Carson, who shared his memories of Dodger Stadium with me last year. He was at the very first game there, and told me (among other things) that the dirt for the infield came from England, and that Frank Howard (who later became a Washington Senator) was the first to hit the backdrop in center field with a home run ball.
Tennis at Petco Park
The U.S. hosted the Davis Cup back in January, and the U.S. Tennis Association chose to have the match in Petco Park. A red clay court was built in left-center field just for that event. See Sports Illustrated.
Reprieve for Astrodome?
The Houston Astrodome was recently ddded to National Register of Historic Places, freeing the way for special funds to be used to preserve it. It's a little ironic for the once-futuristic venue, but I think it's fitting and proper. See news92fm.com.
An Oakland "What if?"
"O.co Coliseum" (known to humans as "Oakland Coliseum") is often criticized as being old, ugly, and ill-suited for baseball. But what would things be like if the city had built a similar facility closer to downtown Oakland? Look at this article at sfgate.com and imagine what could have been... (Link via Facebook.)
Soccer fever: U.S.A.! U.S.A.!
The 2-1 victory of the U.S. soccer team over Ghana in the first round of the World Cup last night has many fans excited, but the Americans are in a very tough grouping and will need more luck to advance further. (The other teams in Group G are Portugal and Germany.)
In Brazil, there are mixed feeling about hosting the World Cup. Most people are crazy about soccer, but economic conditions have worsened over the past couple years, and many question whether the cost of the event is excessive in relation to the needs of poor people. Brazil has won more World Cups (5) than any other team. Brazil previously hosted the World Cup in 1950, when the home team was defeated by neighboring Uruguay in the championship match.
Many newspapers affiliated with Gannett Corporation (USA Today, etc.) carried a nice full-page graphic depiction of all the stadiums being used for the World Cup in Brazil. They range in capacity from the Arena de Baixada (38,533) in Curitiba to the famous Estadio do Maracana (74,689) in Rio de Janeiro. It was renovated with a new roof that needed repairs to make sure that it wouldn't collapse during a match.
Soccer stadium in D.C.?
The mayor of the District of Columbia, Vincent Gray, has declare that his top priority for the last seven months of his term will be finalizing an agreement to build a new soccer stadium to house D.C. United. (They happen to be doing very well this year, for a change, and briefly held first place in their division.) The site has been chosen, just a few blocks southwest of Nationals Park, and eminent domain will be used if the city can't negotiate and agreeable purchase price for the land. Gray was defeated in a primary election after being implicated in a wide-ranging corruption scandal in Our Nation's Capital. Par for the course, I guess.
Soccer in baseball stadiums
Last August there was a series of soccer matches in Dodger Stadium for the first time ever; the MLS L.A. Galaxy team was among the participants. See the dailybreeze.com. They had to remove the pitcher's mound, and after the soccer was over they rebuild it all over again. It took a two-man crew four days to complete the task, which was evidently successful because the Dodgers' pitchers didn't seem to notice any change. See MLB.com.
That reminded me to check which stadiums I have drawn (or will soon draw) a soccer version diagram, so here they are:
Did I mention that the Virginia Cavaliers won the ACC basketball tournament this year, and made it all the way to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen? If not, I should have.
As for the pros, the San Antonio Spurs won the NBA Championship, beating the Miami Heat four games to one. What do people in Cleveland think about LeBron James these days? Just for the record, I might consider paying attention to the NBA playoffs if fewer teams qualified and if they wrapped everything up by the end of April.
And as for the other absurdly-extended "winter" sport, the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup, beating the New York Rangers 3-2, thus taking the series four games to one. But of course, I'm probably the least reliable source in the world for hockey news, so take that with a grain of salt.
But I am reasonably certain that a hockey match was played in Dodger Stadium on January 25, and in response to a query from Michael Monaco, yes, I do intend to make a hockey version diagram of it. But first I need to finish corrections to the shape and angles of the grandstand...
Some worthwhile plugs
I'm usually pretty relaxed and open about exchanging links with other Web sites, as long as I am confident that they are legitimate. So, take a look at SportsMemorabilia.com if you've got some spare time and/or money.
And if you are of a charitable frame of mind, please consider supporting the very worthy Washington Nationals Dream Foundation. They are devoted to encouraging young D.C.-area kids to learn baseball, especially those who live in poorer areas.
On the road again
I'm heading west, hoping to see Rangers Ballpark in Arlington or whatever they call it now (Globe something?), and maybe even Chase Field in Phoenix. I wish I could veer south and see the Astrodome and Minute Maid Park, but that's unlikely. With any luck I'll see the Mariners and Royals play in Kansas City this Sunday, and the Nationals and Reds play in Cincinnati near the end of July. I might even see a College World Series game in Omaha. But don't worry -- as Arnold "Terminator" Schwarzenegger said, "I'll be back!"