Thursday, June 22, 2017

Completing the Pioneer and Northwest Leagues


For years, the big hole in my minor league baseball quest has been the Pacific Northwest. Two short season leagues play here: the Rookie Pioneer League with 8 teams in Montana, Idaho, Utah, and Colorado; and the Northwest League, another 8-team circuit based in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia. I used to live in Vancouver, and saw many games at Nat Bailey Stadium when the AAA Canadians played there. The current tenant is also called the Canadians, and although the league and level are different, the stadium is the same, so I don't need to see it again as it is an active minor league ballpark. I also visited Everett in 2001, so that can be avoided. But the other 14 stadiums have yet to be graced by my presence, so I'll be checking them off over a three-week jaunt. I also have some family time scheduled in Alberta, and I'll try to see a couple of other games when the schedule makes it tough to attend a ballgame.

The full schedule is below:
Sat, Jun 24 Ogden Raptors at Grand Junction Rockies 18:40
Sun, Jun 25 Idaho Falls Chukars at Orem Owlz 16:05
Mon, Jun 26 Reno Aces at Salt Lake Bees 19:05
Tue, Jun 27 Orem Owlz at Ogden Raptors 19:00
Wed, Jun 28 Great Falls Voyagers at Helena Brewers 19:05
Thu, Jun 29 Helena Brewers at Great Falls Voyagers 19:00
Fri, Jun 30 Billings Mustangs at Missoula Osprey 19:05
Sat, Jul  1 Spokane Indians at Boise Hawks 19:15
Wed, Jul  5 Helena Brewers at Billings Mustangs 19:05
Thu, Jul  6 Ogden Raptors at Idaho Falls Chukars 19:15
Fri, Jul  7 North Carolina FC at FC Edmonton (NASL) 19:00
Tue, Jul 11 Cowlitz Black Bears at Wenatchee Apple Sox (West Coast League) 19:05
Wed, Jul 12 Everett AquaSox at Tri-City Dust Devils 19:15
Thu, Jul 13 Eugene Emeralds at Hillsboro Hops 19:05
Fri, Jul 14 Hillsboro Hops at Salem-Keizer Volcanoes 18:35
Sat, Jul 15 Everett AquaSox at Eugene Emeralds 19:05
Sun, Jul 16 Swope Park Rangers at Portland Timbers II (USL) 17:00
Mon, Jul 17 Hillsboro Hops at Spokane Indians 18:30
Tue, Jul 18 Hillsboro Hops at Spokane Indians 18:30
As you might expect, rainouts are my primary concern, so I do have a few days leeway should one occur. If I do end up missing a park, the quest gets postponed until 2018. And nobody wants that to happen.

If you are in the area, drop me a line and perhaps we can meet up and enjoy a game together. This will be my last big road trip, and it should be a lot of fun, so follow along here starting Saturday.

Best,

Sean

Monday, June 19, 2017

Altoona Curve 2 at Hartford Yard Goats 0 (7, Eastern League) - June 17, 2017


At the end of the August 2015, I took a short trip to New Britain, Connecticut, to see the final minor league game played at New Britain Stadium. The Rock Cats, AA affiliate of Colorado, would be moving to nearby Hartford, where they would open 2016 in Dunkin' Donuts Park as the Yard Goats. Or so it was thought. Midway through the ballpark's construction, it became apparent that the project was rife with problems. Fingers were pointed while construction ground to a halt. Delays were announced, so much so that opening day was missed and the team started the season on the road. Eventually construction was completely stopped, the parties involved (primarily the city and the contractor) sued each other, and the Yard Goats spent the entire 2016 season without a yard. It was a legal mess that is still being sorted out in court.



Thankfully the physical mess was cleaned up by another builder this past winter, and the new stadium was finished in time for the season opener. Despite being just a couple of hours away from me, however, it was quite difficult to find a weekend when I was free and the Yard Goats were home. I finally decided to visit on June 17 when the Yard Goats had a weekend set against Altoona. I even brought my wife as Hartford also has the oldest public art museum in the nation, which is definitely worth a look for art aficionados. The shot below is from a work by Sol LeWitt, a Hartford native.



Anyway, enough about art. We arrived in Hartford on Friday evening with rain tapering off. That was good news for me as that night's game had been suspended in the fourth inning, meaning I would get the rest of that game before a 7-inning tilt on Saturday. Free baseball!



The ballpark is located on the edge of downtown Hartford, just north of 1-84 which runs underneath the cross streets at this point. The Hilton is just a block away, allowing for a nice photo from 17 stories up.



The main entrance is at the corner of Trumbull and Main (middle right in the above photo), where the ticket office is also located. The Yard Goats are immensely popular, so much so that they have sold out nearly half their games, with the vast majority of those being season tickets. What this means is that seats are not guaranteed if you walk up a few minutes before game time. Or even a few hours.



When I arrived at the box office Saturday morning, about six hours before gates were to open; I was told there was precisely one seat left. It was in section 203 atop the right field corner, so I decided to buy an SRO ticket for $10 instead, expecting some drink rails along the concourse. Turns out that there are drink rails, but there are high-top swivel seats along each rail, so that there is no standing space here, as you can see below.



In fact, there is really no place to stand comfortably to watch the game between the bases. Seating capacity here is 6,056 and attendance was 6,847, so nearly 800 other fans also bought standing room, which made things even more crowded. Fortunately, I found an unoccupied swivel chair behind home plate and was able to remain there for the second game.



As you would expect from a brand new park, there are a number of features. Most obvious are the varied seating locations, with sections above the right field fence stretching all the way to a bar that is almost directly above center.



There is also a lower section behind right field that is covered by netting, which I assumed was to stop fans from throwing things on opposing players. Turns out that it is because they built right field too close to home plate and the netting is actually in play. Thanks to fellow stadium traveller Paul for that tidbit.



The seat I avoided is part of a smaller section that is near the club entrance, with the view below.



There are also seats in left field as well. They've done a good job spreading things out here given the relatively small footprint.



Down the left field line is another bar area, and this has a drink rail along the edge of the wall with a view directly toward home plate.



This is also where you get the best view of the Hartford skyline.



Note that if you are with a group, buy your tickets in advance as far as possible. You will save money as tickets are $2 cheaper than on game day, and you will guarantee seats together rather than being separated should you show up at the box office when there are just singles remaining.



Inside the main entrance is the starting lineup in picture form, as well as league standings, league leaders, and even the MLB standings, which were being updated as I made my way in (below). That's a lot of work for something that can easily be checked on your phone.



Just above this is a picture of the Hartford Senators, who featured Lou Gehrig before he gained fame with the Yankees. He's sitting fourth from the left in the photo below.



Obviously there is no "Road to the Show" exhibit here yet as the team is just over a year old. There are a few panels dedicated to the history of sports in Hartford, including a mention of the Whalers, whose departure 20 years ago still riles local fans.



The concourse is wide but with such a large crowd, it does get busy. The photo below was taken just after gates opened, before most fans had turned up.



Food lines can be long so best to stock up before the game lest you miss anything. I did not bother trying any of the food, though the 32 ounce craft beer for $12 was very tempting and also very popular. There is naturally a Dunkin' Donuts stand here as well.



You can walk around the entire concourse and behind the bullpens, where there is a group party area.



The view of the main structure from center field is below.



You can also go up to the top level, where the bar is. The picture below was taken during the first game, which started an hour before the originally scheduled time, so there weren't as many fans in the stadium. By the time the second game got started, it was nearly full.



If you think the Yard Goats might change their name in the future, the high-top swivel chairs should remove that notion from your head as they are all adorned with the logo.



There are several mascots around, with Chompers being the star. He was constantly surrounded by adoring fans, so I never did get a picture. The best I could do is a promotion featuring Dial, Luctite, and RightGuard. I have no idea what this promotion was for, but at least it smelled nice.



One of the prime advertisements throughout the evening encouraged fans to vote Dunkin' Donuts Park as the best AA park for Ballpark Digest. The campaign worked as the stadium was voted just that, beating Altoona's Peoples Natural Gas Field. Personally, I don't agree (Pensacola, Tulsa, and Birmingham come to mind as worthy challengers) but as this is a fan vote and the stadium was a year late, I'm willing to accept the result.



Overall, there is only one problem here, and that is the lack of comfortable standing room between the bases. Otherwise, this place does very well and should be a top ballpark destination for years to come. If you do decided to visit this year, make sure to get your tickets in advance so you have a place to sit to watch the Yard Goats play.

The Game

Altoona (Pittsburgh's affiliate) was up 2-0 in the opener when play resumed, but Hartford came back to win 4-2. After a 45-minute wait while the grounds crew prepared, the second match started. Yency Almonte (Rockies #12 prospect) started for Hartford against Tanner Anderson (20th round, 2015). Jordan Luplow (3rd, 2014, Pirates #30 prospect) hit a monster homer into the right field seats leading off the second to give Altoona an early lead. Almonte lasted five innings with only that blemish, but his replacement Johendi Jiminian allowed another run in the top of the 6th. Meanwhile, Anderson faced the minimum through 6, yielding just two singles, both of which were erased on double plays. He was in line for the shutout but was pinch-hit for in the 7th having thrown just 55 pitches. Closer Montana DuRapau (32nd, 2014) came in and gave up a walk but struck out the other three batters for his 10th save as Altoona salvaged the Saturday with a 2-0 win. The game took just 1:48, not uncommon for a 7-inning tilt where pitchers can be more aggressive. Anderson gets my coveted Player to Watch award for his stellar performance.

Notes



Hartford is one of the oldest cities in the nation, and the Ancient Burying Ground is testament to this fact. Well worth a look just to imagine the lives led by these settlers over 300 years ago.



Another interesting attraction is the Mark Twain House, located about a mile and a half west of the city and easily accessible on foot or by bus. Twain wrote his most famous stories here and the house has been restored with many original pieces of furniture. The tour is quite expensive at $20 and really doesn't provide any incredible insights into his time here, but if you are a fan, you can stand in the room where Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn came to life.

Next Up

I've now seen games in all active ballparks between High A and AAA (120 total). I still have 20 minor leagues parks left to reach the magic 160: 6 in the Low-A Midwest League, 6 in the Short-Season Northwest League and 8 in the Rookie Pioneer League. Those last two circuits are next on my list and I'll be heading out west this weekend to get started. Check back for that trip schedule shortly.

Best,

Sean

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Canadian Grand Prix - June 10-11, 2017


Back when I lived in Asia, Formula 1 was a sport that I followed quite closely, including attending races in Singapore, Malaysia, and Japan. Now that I have returned to North America, I still try to keep up with the happenings in F1 but it is a lot tougher, as the main sports networks barely cover it and most races are on early Sunday morning rather than in the evening. Since 2012, there has been a race in Austin, but that is a bit too far to go for me, particularly given the cost of attending an F1 event.

Fortunately, there is an annual race that is closer to NYC, namely the Canadian Grand Prix, held on the second weekend in June at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal. Being Canadian myself, this has long been on the bucket list, and 2017 was the first year since my return that I had nothing else on that weekend. I was able to book a cheap flight to Montreal, returning via Amtrak's Adirondack service, an 11-hour ride that is a bargain at just $60.

My buddy Sharpy drove down from Ottawa to join me, picking me up at the airport early Saturday morning. I had an AirBnB booked because hotels downtown were ludicrously expensive. F1 fans are jetsetters, and they can afford overpriced lodging, but I cannot. After finding a perfect parking spot near our accommodation, we made our way to Berri-UQAM metro station, where the Yellow Line takes you to the circuit, which lies on Île Notre-Dame, a man-made island just south of the city. The metro system is accustomed to the crowds that F1 attracts, and it was a smooth process to purchase a day pass, board the train along with a thousand other people, and disembark one station later at Jean Drapeau.

As we enjoying a bit of breakfast before boarding the train, I received a notification from AirBnB, which certainly didn't bode well. I reluctantly checked the message and was dismayed to find that our host, for some unknown reason, had cancelled at the last minute, without even providing a note of explanation or apology. Ah, the beauty of the sharing economy, where there are no consequences for being a piece of crap. Regardless of my anger, Sharpy and I were suddenly stranded without a place to stay. But we had no time to worry as we had to get to the qualifying session.



From Jean Drapeau station, it is a short walk over a bridge to one of the three entrances to the track. Before entering the circuit, you pass by the Biosphere, the iconic symbol from Expo '67, which also houses an environmental museum.



Along the bridge are banners celebrating each past champion, including surprise winner Robert Kubica, whose only F1 win came here in 2008. There is no waiting at security or where the ticket is scanned, as the crowd arrives at a fairly steady pace. Once inside, you might have a long walk to your grandstand (tribune in French). For qualifying, we were in Grandstand 24, right at the hairpin, which took about 15 minutes to reach. This is the best place for pictures as the cars are moving quite slowly out of the turn.



Each grandstand is really just an uncomfortable metal bleacher, and many fans choose general admission instead, which allows them to find a spot close to a fence and set up a portable chair. Food and beer are allowed to be brought in, so you can really make a day of it if you come early. I brought my F1 radio headphones, but they were not necessary. In the time since I first attended, the cars have become much quieter, so much so that even earplugs are not required.



The qualifying takes only an hour, and it was quite exciting as Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton (above during the drivers' parade on Sunday) set a track record to take the pole in front of Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel. I had seen 5 races so far, and Vettel has won them all, so I was hopeful that that streak would be broken. We stayed to watch a bit of the next race, featuring smaller and slower Formula 1600 cars, but after watching the big boys zoom by, this event was rather dull. With our lack of accommodation for the evening becoming a pressing issue, we headed back to town.

After retrieving the charger for my phone, we stepped into Yer Mad, a bar very close to Berri UQAM. There were cheap beers, odd grilled cheese sandwiches (butter chicken for example, which is worth a try) and a plug so I could charge my phone and start figuring out where to stay. Perfect. While I tried to get in touch with AirBnB (no luck) and look for a suitable hotel in the area (options were few and far between). Sharpy went upstairs to the Hotel Arena Palace (a double misnomer as it is neither) to see if they had a room. Surprisingly, they did. It was obviously a flophouse, but I've stayed in worse during my travels in Asia, and given the convenience to the station and the track, plus a nearby sports bar, plus the lack of anything else in the area, we decided to stay there. The room was basic, but did have a private shower, its only amenity. There was a fan, but the attached light did not turn off separately so you either slept in humidity, or with the light on. There was also a TV with 13 channels of static. But hey, we weren't there to watch TV. In order to improve our quality of sleep, we spent a few hours at the sports bar before finally crashing for the evening.

Sunday we returned to the track several hours before the race. This time we were in Grandstand 46, the cheapest option if you want a seat. Views are fine, but this part of the track sees only cars accelerating out of the hairpin, thus there is no real chance for passing. As well, there is no screen visible from our seats, as the nearest one is blocked by a tree as you can see on the right of the photo below. This makes the race a bit difficult to follow, but there is an announcer who keeps fans apprised of events elsewhere on the track.



The race started with some excitement as Felipe Massa and Carlos Sainz Jr. were knocked out on the first lap. This left Canadian Lance Stroll (below), an 18-year-old rookie, as the only Williams car in the race. Stroll had qualified 17th, but the early shakeup was just what he needed to move up. Hamilton was the runaway leader right from the start, so the excitement was to see if Stroll could move into the top 10 and secure his first F1 points. As the race continued. Stroll slowly gained position bit by bit, helped by other cars leaving the race (including Max Verstappen) and his own aggressiveness. When he took over tenth spot, there was a loud cheer the next time he came around.



Vettel had to pit early due to some wing damage, but he was able to move from 18th to 4th over the rest of the race, providing Ferrari fans something to cheer about, but he could not catch Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo for a podium spot. Hamilton won over teammate Valtteri Bottas by 23 seconds to complete the Mercedes sweep, while Stroll ended up 9th to record the feel good story of the afternoon. That's Hamilton celebrating on the big screen below. A more detailed review can be found here.



With the race over, the track was opened to fans, who could walk along as they made their way to the exit.



I expected a long wait at the station, but things moved very quickly and we were back at the sports bar about 40 minutes after the race ended, in plenty of time to watch the Jays and Mariners out west. Later that evening the Penguins clinched the Stanley Cup, just as I predicted (kind of).

It was a great weekend hampered only by the last-second cancellation of AirBnB. After I returned home, I sent them an email to complain about the situation and our limited options. They refunded the money we spent on the Arena Palace, which helped a lot. Still, I have now been cancelled on three times in a row, so I'll probably be avoiding them for a long while.

Notes



The train ride back to New York is beautiful as you pass along Lake Champlain on the east and then the Hudson River to the west, but the air conditioning in the car failed halfway there, rendering it a somewhat uncomfortable experience. Most riders moved to the snack car to take advantage of their AC, which left my car quite empty and quiet. The conductor passed out free water, which made things tolerable. I would recommend this ride once, but possibly in the spring or fall, when a failure of the air conditioning system won't impact you as much.



The museum in the biosphere was free during the weekend and is worth a visit, if only for the view of downtown through the lattice.

Best,

Sean

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Wilmington Blue Rocks 5 at Down East Wood Ducks 4 (Carolina League) - June 5, 2017


Kinston has long been a minor league baseball town with a history stretching back to 1921. The Expos had a team here in 1974, and the Blue Jays followed suit from 1979-84 with future stars Jesse Barfield, Tony Fernandez, and Mark Eichhorn among those who passed through. In 1986, the Kinston Indians took over, and stayed here until 2011, when they were bought and moved to nearby Zebulon to take over the Carolina Mudcats name. I was quite disappointed when that happened because the team was using Grainger Stadium, a historic venue that opened in 1949. Living in Japan at the time, I figured I would never get a chance to see a game there.



Fortunately, the recent expansion in the Carolina League put a team back in Kinston and as part of my quest to see all active minor league parks, I finally had a reason and an opportunity to see a game at Grainger. The new team is called the Down East Wood Ducks, which was a controversial choice for two reasons. First, the name was trademarked on August 15, 2016, a month before the finalists were announced for the name-the-team contest (Eagles, HamHawks, Hogzillas, and Shaggers were the other choices). Wood Ducks was eventually announced as the winner but no fan was awarded a prize, suggesting a bit of subterfuge on the part of management. The other problem with the name is that the Down East region in North Carolina does not include Kinston, which is too far inland. To be fair, several businesses in the area use the Down East term, so it is by no means an official designation. I'm not sure why those who live further east would be upset to have their region getting national recognition.



Anyway, the name remains and the logo was created shortly thereafter. It now appears everywhere in the stadium and outside as well, including a nearby water tower.



The ballpark is located on Vernon Avenue, which is a continuation of the business portion of US70 that takes you into town. Parking in the large lot out front is free, though you might want to park far away as foul balls sail into the lot on a regular basis. Tickets are $8 for reserved seats between Sunday and Wednesday, $2 more on Thursday, and $2 on top of that for Friday/Saturday games. General admission tickets are $2 less each day, and are limited to a set of bleachers down third base, or a small grass area along first base.



The rest of the seating area is in a covered grandstand with 8 sections with about 14 rows in each. Behind the grandstand is the open concourse where you will find concessions and the team store.



As is often the case with older stadiums, there are support poles that might block your view, so get a seat in Row F or lower to avoid this possibility.



I ended up getting a seat in section 4, directly behind the plate (view below). Note the folding chairs right by the field. These are field level seats and seem to be for season ticket holders or groups. It is an interesting setup as you get your own box and can fit up to 8 seats in there, as well as enjoy wait service.



There is also a small picnic area along first base that is reserved for groups. There are no outfield seats here, and you cannot walk around the entire field.



This shot from the third base line is the best you can do to see the whole stadium. Netting covers the entire grandstand, so if you want a clear view, get the GA seats.



The shot below is taken from the top of the third base corner in the grandstand. The sun is setting behind third base and shines through the grating on top, another reason to sit lower.



The scoreboard includes a small video screen that is surrounded by ads. It does the trick, though for the first inning or two the sun is shining directly on it, making it difficult to read.



The starting lineups and standings are posted near the main entrance, but I did not see any display regarding the history of the teams here or a Road to the Show exhibit, about the only thing missing here.The Rangers own the team and have never been here before, so that might be the reason for the lack of history.



It was dollar dog night, so after a couple of those I had enough cash left to enjoy a Mother Earth beer, a bargain for $6. This local brewery is just a mile away and looks to be great place to stop before the game. Unfortunately, it is closed Mondays, so keep that in mind if you are planning a trip here.



Now about that logo. The team has really gone overboard in the placement of the bird; it is on the pavement, on the washrooms (Drakes and Hens), and even on the walls spouting out little facts about wood ducks.



One thing I learned is that they are also called Woodies and that is used as a team nickname as well. In fact, their home uniform is labeled Woodies. Nobody seems to think the secondary logo below is strange.



The team has a great merchandise selection as well. The full name abbreviates to DEWD and that is prominent on some t-shirts, as well as the name of the mascot.



Overall, Grainger Stadium is a great combination of the old and new of minor league baseball. I enjoy covered grandstands more than the open seating that characterizes most new stadiums, and really enjoyed the atmosphere here. But only the stadium is old, the Wood Ducks have wholeheartedly embraced their identity and are using it to establish a new tradition in this market. Definitely pay a visit to Grainger Stadium when you can to see the Woodies.

The Game

Wilmington (KC) was in town and the pitching matchup featured a couple of Venezuelans, with Andres Machado tossing for the Blue Rocks, while Frank Lopez toed the rubber for the Woodies. After a scoreless first, Lopez ran into trouble, walking the first three batters to start the second before Nathan Esposito (33rd round, 2015) hit a grounder off of Lopez's foot that scored two runs. Lopez escaped without any more damage but gave up a leadoff homer to Brandon Downes (7th, 2014). Two batters later, a double by Chase Vallot (40th overall in 2014, KC's #6 prospect) chased Lopez. Wilmington added an unearned run in the 4th before Down East finally got to Machado in the bottom half with a single, triple, hit batsman, single, and fielders choice to the right fielder (actually a missed pop fly) scored three runs.



The Blue Rocks increased their lead in the 7th with a single, hit-and-run single, and Esposito groundout, and that run was crucial as Luis La O (a 25-year-old Cuban who joined the Rangers system this year) led off the ninth with a homer for the Wood Ducks off closer Franco Terrero. But Terrero was not fazed and induced 3 weak groundouts to preserve the Wilmington win. Esposito gets my Player to Watch award with a 3-4 night.

Notes

Once again, I have completed all Advanced A ballparks. I have one AA stadium left (Hartford, June 17) and then two trips - a big one to the Pioneer and Northwest Leagues (14 parks to see) and then the final six in the Midwest League in August to complete all active minor league stadiums.

Next Up

Before that though, I'm heading to Montreal this weekend for the Canadian Grand Prix. It will be my first F1 race outside Asia, check back next week for a recap.

Best,

Sean