Tuesday, May 23, 2017
The final minor league game on the trip was in Beloit, a small town about an hour southwest of Milwaukee and home of the Snappers of the Midwest League. My buddy Duncan had flown in for the two games between the Brewers and Blue Jays and drove down to join me for this one as well. After a brief stop at Lucy's #7 Burger Bar (highly recommended), we headed over to Pohlman Field to see the Snappers take on their state rivals, the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers.
After visiting a number of new stadiums on this trip, it was nice to see an older venue, with this one having opened in 1982. It's true.
The park is very old school with a small central seating section that has five rows of plastic chairs and six rows of benches above; the entire area is protected by netting. Down the lines are bleachers and picnic areas, which is where you go if you want to get a foul ball. Beloit is averaging just 419 so far this year (due in part to the cold weather), making it one of the better places to get a ball. It is interesting to note that if you leave the park to chase a foul ball, you will not be allowed to re-enter, but if you leave for any other reason, you will be allowed back in.
When we arrived, the tarp was on the field due to a slight drizzle, which ended up delaying the game about an hour and a quarter.
During the break, I ran into some Timber Rattlers getting dinner from the concession stand. Those are two pitchers who did not appear in the game, so I guess having bad food is OK. Actually, I tried the Tater Tot Chicken Strips from this stand and they were pretty good. I also grabbed a discounted slice of pizza in the last inning, which was probably a mistake. They even added a free box of popcorn that I gave to Duncan.
We also ran into Snappy, who was kind enough to pose for a picture with Duncan.
There aren't many features here. The standings of course...
...pennants for playoff appearances...
...and a Road to the Show board that is in desperate need of repair.
Bullpens are quite a bit away from the fencing well down the lines; the picnic areas are here so maybe that's to dissuade fans from throwing food at the players.
If you sit in the last few rows directly behind the plate, you can hear both broadcasters clearly, which adds a bit to the experience.
The Snappers have a few promotions, but with so few kids on hand, they were mostly for adults. In one, interns dress up as mattresses and race around the warning track...
... while in another, two men don inflatable balls and try to knock each other senseless.
Overall, Pohlman Field is probably the worst ballpark I have seen in quite some time. So naturally I loved it. Fans and staff are very friendly, you can move around easily, and the views from down the lines are not bad at all. Next time you are in Milwaukee, check to see if the Snappers are home and make the trip to see an old-style minor league park.
Wisconsin (Milwaukee) sent Thomas Jankins (13th round, 2016, below) to the mound while Beloit (Oakland) responded with Xavier Altamirano (27th, 2015), who only lasted two innings before being replaced by Dakota Chalmers (3rd, 2015, A's #11 prospect).
With the game tied at 1 in the fifth, Beloit burst out with a six-spot, highlighted by a monster 3-run jack from Luis Barrera. Two innings later, they added five more on three walks, three singles, and three wild pitches. Wisconsin added an unearned run in the 9th to make the linescore very interesting.
The scoreboard operator made a mistake and gave Beloit a hit, but it was an error. So the final linescore was Beloit 2-2-2, Wisconsin 12-2-2. The game took 2:32, exactly twice the length of the rain delay, with attendance a robust 192.
Before we entered, we were offered a lawn sign saying "We Back the Badge". A unique giveaway but sadly I don't think these would fit in the overhead bins, so we had to politely decline.
The Jays are in Milwaukee to finish the road trip that started last week in Atlanta, and I'll finish my trip that started last week in Kissimmee. Check back Friday for a recap.
Monday, May 22, 2017
On my 2001 road trip, I saw a game at Pete Vonachen Stadium in Peoria, a ballpark named for the longtime owner of the Chiefs. That was the stadium's last season as the team was ready to open a new downtown facility in 2002. At that time, I didn't think twice about it, but once I decided to visit all active minor league parks, I realized that I had to return to Peoria to add Dozer Stadium to my list.
I drove about 90 minutes using minor highways between my hotel in Mendota and Peoria, avoiding the Interstates as much as possible. It still amazes me how much of the country is still empty and you can drive miles without passing another car, even in northern Illinois. I arrived an hour before game time, surprised at the crowd out front. The ballpark is located at the corner of Oak and Jefferson and there is free street parking around, though I'm glad I got there early to secure a spot three blocks away. Any later and I would have had to pay $5 to park in one of the lots.
Tickets are $11 for the seats between the bases, $10 for the other seats, and $7 for general admission. These are gameday prices, subtract a buck for the seats if you buy in advance and add a buck if there are fireworks after the game. Having saved on parking, I decided to splurge on this one and got a seat just four rows behind the plate. The picture below is from the last row in that section, but gives you an idea of the view.
The park has a few interesting features. Just inside the main entrance is a statue of Vonachen giving a baseball to a kid. He purchased the team in 1983 and made them and the ballpark a destination for everyone. An innovator in marketing, he is one of those that turned minor league baseball into the fan-friendly sport that it is today.
The name of the stadium reflects the fact that Caterpillar headquarters is in Peoria rather than the soporific nature of baseball. Originally dubbed O'Brien Field for a local car dealership, it became Chiefs Stadium in 2008, and then Cat bought the rights in 2013, choosing to use Dozer to represent their bulldozers, an unusual move. There's even an ancient tractor on the concourse to cement the partnership.
Most new minor league stadiums have a seating bowl that extends past the bases, an open concourse that allows views of the field, suites above, berms in the corners, picnic areas and party zones beyond the fences, and a kids playground somewhere. Dozer Park is no different, with all of those elements present. This is not a complaint by any means; this setup is successful for a reason - it gets a wide variety of fans out - attendance was 4,776 on this blustery afternoon.
The concourse is dotted with concessions stands; Burgertopia is my hearty recommendation. At $8 it is more expensive than anything else, but the burger is cooked fresh and is very tasty. There are four varieties too, should you visit the park more than once. There is also a small craft beer stand called Good Hops, with a couple of dozen different types of bottles, most costing $7. The Chiefs nickname was taken after a team that played here between 1953-57. It is not related to Native Americans (at least now), but refers to firefighting: the mascot is a Dalmatian, and the concession stands have names such as Five Alarm Grill and Engine House.
You can walk around to the outfield and take a picture of the entire seating bowl, but you cannot complete the circuit.
There are four retired numbers here: Wally Joyner, Mark Grace, Ryne Sandberg, and Greg Maddux. The Chiefs have primarily been Cardinals and Cubs affiliates, so I find it interesting that no Cards are here; Albert Pujols spent part of the 2000 season in Peoria before storming on the major league scene in 2001.
There is no Road to the Show display, which I found surprising. The stadium is also used by Bradley University and they have a list of major leaguers, but I saw nothing of the sort for the Chiefs.
The scoreboard is above right field, and quite nice for this level, with a sizeable video board above the line score.
Programs, starting lineups, and the rosters are available at guest services just next to the main entrance. If you want a t-shirt or softee ball, sit in section 108 or 109 as they toss them from the press box. I understand the value in a t-shirt, but a softee ball?
Overall, Dozer Park is another enjoyable venue to watch minor league baseball. I never get tired of attending these games; the fans and promotions are always fun, you can usually see a future major leaguer or two, and the games are played with a pace that is no longer possible in the majors.
Beloit (Oakland) was in town to take on the Chiefs, who sent Jordan Hicks (3rd round, 2015, now the #18 prospect for St. Louis, below) to the hill. Before the game, I read his scouting report on MLB.com, of which I quote a portion here:
Hicks came out with some good power stuff right out of the gate. His fastball typically sat in the low-90s but touched as high as 97-98 mph, though he didn't always maintain that velocity. He throws it with a lot of sink, resulting in a very good ground-ball rate. He can really spin a curveball, with a chance of it becoming a plus breaking pitch eventually. His changeup needs work, but it also has potential. He did struggle with command, but he also was successful against older competition at age 19.
This was exactly what happened and sitting directly behind the plate, I immediately realized his potential with his fastball touching 95 and a great curve. But his ball/strike ratio wasn't that good, although he only walked 2 and hit a batter, giving up four runs in 6 innings.
His mound opponent was Brendan Butler (30th, 2015, a Queens native) who also yielded four runs (three earned) in five frames. He was replaced by Jesus Zambrano who got two quick outs but then gave up a single, double, single, walk, and single as Peoria took a 7-4 lead, putting Hicks in line for the win. Beloit added a couple in the 8th to make it exciting, but Eric Carter (26th, 2016) finished the game with a three up, three down ninth, the first for the Peoria pitchers on the afternoon as the Chiefs held on for the 7-6 win. The player to watch was Peoria's Nick Plummer (23rd overall in 2015 and #23 prospect for St. Louis) who went 3-5 with two doubles.
The game took 2:43 but the PPM was a fantastic 1.81. To compare, Toronto's 7-5 loss to Baltimore the day before (a similar linescore) had a PPM of 1.53, 18% slower. It might not sound like much, but these long MLB games with their reviews and endless pitching changes are simply not fun to watch anymore.
I always enjoy when they announce random seat locations as prize winners. Most fans don't really pay attention to their actual section and row, so when the lady in front of me won $25 worth of dry cleaning, I had to tell her.
I'm in Beloit tonight so I can see the Snappers take on the Timber Rattlers. Tomorrow is the first of two with the Blue Jays in Milwaukee. Just like last week, Joe Biagini will throw in the opener, while Marcus Stroman pitches game 2. Hoping the Jays can win them both!
Sunday, May 21, 2017
When this trip was planned, I set aside three days to visit the two Midwest League stadiums in the Western Division that I have yet to see. Both Appleton and Peoria are relatively far away from the other six venues in the league that are still on my list, all of which are in the Eastern Division (in Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan). The schedule works very well for those six the week after the Jays visit Wrigley in August, with all at home and able to be visited without backtracking. Thus I needed to make sure I caught the two remaining Western ballparks on this trip to Milwaukee, so I added a buffer day to reduce the risk of a rainout ruining my plans. When the game in Appleton last night was completed, I had two days to see the game in Peoria.
Driving southwest from Appleton to Peoria, about a 5-hour jaunt, I encountered severe weather that had caused the Cubs afternoon game to be postponed. I wasn't sure if the Peoria game would be cancelled as well, and so I booked a hotel an hour outside of town to figure out options. Checking the radar, I realized that the rain had passed through the area and both Saturday and Sunday's game would be played. I decided to save Peoria for Sunday, which meant finding another game on Saturday. Fortunately, the Frontier League, an independent (unaffiliated with MLB) circuit has several teams in Illinois, and the Joliet Slammers had a game just an hour east of the hotel.
The Frontier League is celebrating its 25th anniversary this season, making it the longest continuously running independent league. Baseball at this level is difficult to operate at a profit, though a few franchises have been successful for decades, with the St. Paul Saints the most notable. There are currently eight summer leagues with 62 total teams, but franchise movement is constant and trying to keep up with all of the changes is a tiring exercise. As well, the quality of the game is not as good as the minors; most players are former minor leaguers and there are no prospects whatsoever. That doesn't mean these players have no shot, several have been signed by MLB clubs and worked their way up to the Show (David Peralta is a good example). Still, I've seen a few games at this level and there and found them to be less compelling than those in the minors.
The ballparks, on the other hand, can be surprisingly impressive, rivalling minor league venues in quality and amenities. I was also intrigued by the Slammers, whose nickname references not only baseball, but the old Joliet Correctional Center, which closed in 2002. Its most famous inmate was Jake Blues, frontman of a band known as the Blues Brothers.
The Slammers play out of Slammers Stadium, which was opened in 2002 and hosted another independent league team, the Jackhammers, until 2010. The ballpark was known as Silver Cross Field after a local hospital had bought naming rights, but the 15-year agreement expired after last season and the team is looking for a new sponsor. Thus the name on the stadium remains as before, a clear sign that this is independent ball, where budgets are much tighter and there is no point taking down the name without a new name to put up there.
The Slammers make good use of the prison motif, with a jailbird logo (above) and a team store called The Clink.
Tickets are $8 for general admission, $12 for reserved seats, and $14 for the first couple of rows, known as the club. Although the rain had ceased a couple of hours earlier, fans stayed away in droves and so a GA ticket was all that was needed. The ballpark is a typical configuration of Kelly green seats, with suites above and a very stylish press box above. There is a picnic area, kids zone, and beer garden, but with so few in attendance, it did not seem like these were operating. Only half the concession stands were open, all offering typical fare. If you do visit, stop by the Chicago St. Pub just a block away for a pregame snack.
Out in right field is a sculpture of steel workers (Joliet used to have the second largest steel mill in the country), while far behind the fence in left field is a fire station with a sign indicating that it is 560 feet away from home plate.
With a capacity of 6,016, the ballpark is similar to Class-A facilities in the minors, though slightly smaller as you can tell above. The Amtrak station is directly across a small street behind third base and trains are constantly running during the game, providing a nice distraction at times.
Joliet is just 45 minutes southwest of Chicago, so if you are looking to add a new ballpark to your list while in the Windy City, consider Slammers Stadium, which I hope will have a new name when you visit. SportsRoadTrips Stadium perhaps?
The game was routine, with Joliet winning 6-3. The only player worth noting is first baseman Rock Shoulders for three reasons. The first is obviously his name, which makes headline writers giddy. The second is that he hit a monster home run (the Slammers website headline was "Shoulders Muscles Slammers Over Boomers"). The third is that he was wearing the #343 jersey, which is presented by Firehouse Subs. Every game, a different player wears this jersey in remembrance of the 343 firefighters who lost their lives on September 11. Fans can bid on the single, game-worn jersey with proceeds going to the Firehouse Subs Safety Foundation. It is an interesting fundraising method, and if you happen to be in Joliet and see someone with this jersey, you'll know where they got it.
Shoulders was drafted in the 25th round by the Cubs in 2011, and was named MiLB's Moniker Madness champion in 2012. Shoulders spent 2 games with AAA Round Rock (seriously) in 2015 and his homer off Arnold Leon (who briefly saw time with Toronto last year) was the only run of the game in Nashville on May 9 of that year. Apparently that wasn't enough; a week later he was back in Class A where he batted .169 to earn his release. Independent ball is rife with stories like this, and part of the fun of going to games is researching some of these players.
I'm heading to Peoria obviously, then Beloit on Monday before hitting Milwaukee on Tuesday and Wednesday for the Jays. Check back for recaps.
Saturday, May 20, 2017
In 2001, I spent 7 months on the road watching baseball. I saw 108 games - 72 in the major leagues, and 36 in the minors. On only one occasion was a game rained out where I could not attend the next day, and that was a Midwest League tilt in Appleton, home of the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. I spent a couple of hours in the stadium hoping for the skies to clear, but the game was called and I drove away disappointed. I never thought I'd return here, but now that I live in the States and am on a ridiculous quest to see a game in all active minor league ballparks, I had to put Fox Cities Stadium back on the list.
With Appleton just over a hundred miles from Milwaukee, I decided to wait until the Jays visited the Brewers so I could combine the two trips, and that opportunity arose this season. The Timber Rattlers are away next week, so I had to see them on the weekend before the Jays arrived. I therefore combined the Atlanta visit with this one, and flew to Milwaukee direct from Atlanta on Friday morning, rented a car, and then drove to Appleton. It was 90 degrees in Atlanta and 45 in Milwaukee when we landed, but it actually warmed up as I drove north, reaching a balmy 54.
After a brief stop at my hotel, I drove over to Neuroscience Group Field at Fox Cities Stadium, another brainy example of a team finding someone to sponsor the field without changing the name of the stadium. The Fox Cities are the communities along the Fox River, of which Appleton is the largest. There was a car sale out front, making for an interesting picture.
The stadium is located in the northwest area of town, surrounded mostly an industrial park, while I-41 passes by the outfield fence. There is a single entry point, with parking costing $5, though there was an Uber drop-off point if you wanted to avoid that. There are three ticket options for the average fan: $14 for box seats, $11 for bleachers, and $8 for general admission. There are 10 rows of maroon box seats (matching one of the team colours) and 10 rows of bleachers across most of the seating bowl. Right next to the entrance is a giant bobblehead of the mascot, Fang, which seems to provide unlimited amusement to children.
There are two special seating options. For small groups, the patio seats are sold in packs of 4 for $76 and include wait service.
There's also an all-you-can-eat buffet down the first base line for $30, which you can see as the think black line to the left of the dugout in the photo below.
The concourse is more than enough for the crowd, which was surprisingly robust on this chilly evening. Perhaps drawn by the promise of fireworks, over 4,700 were on hand, more than double the season average for the Timber Rattlers.
Food here is among the most varied I have seen at any minor league ballpark. There are several concession stands each with very detailed menus as you can see below.
My recommendation is the Authentic Wisconsin Grill, where a freshly made grilled cheese sandwich is just $5, though there are other heartier options such as a helmet mac'n'cheese for $5 or a grilled Cajun chicken mac'n'cheese sandwich for $10. As you are in the Dairy State, cheese is mandatory.
You can walk along a boardwalk to the bullpens in the outfield, from where you can see the entire stadium (above). However, you cannot complete the circuit, and must return along the boardwalk. The view from behind home plate is below.
In terms of history, the Legends Lounge is a great place to see past stars who started their career here. There has been minor league baseball in the area off and on since 1909, so many famous names can be found honoured on the walls, such as Cal Ripken Sr. and LaMarr Hoyt (below).
Past jerseys are also on display; previous teams included the Appleton Foxes and Appleton Papermakers. The Lounge is also heated and thus a good spot to warm up during inning breaks.
For more recent success stories, the Call-Up Worthy board lists previous T-Rats who have made the show. This is part of a larger sponsorship across the minors, but this is the first such display I have seen.
There are suites and club seats above home plate, with the press box below.
Overall, Fox Cities Stadium is a very nice minor league park that has aged well since its opening in 1995. I really enjoyed my time here, with the food and fans among the best that the minor leagues have to offer. Appleton is not on many tourist itineraries, but if you are a ballpark chaser, this is one that you should not miss.
The Cedar Rapids Kernels (Minnesota's affiliate) were in town to face Wisconsin, who now belong to the Brewers. Wisconsin sent Trey Supak (2nd, 2014, by Pittsburgh and now the Brewers #29 prospect, below) to the hill, while Cedar Rapids countered with Clay Beeker (33rd, 2016). Both were strong, with Supak lasting 6 innings giving up such one unearned run, while Beeker completed seven, giving up just 4 hits. Unfortunately, 2 of those were home runs from Trever Morrison (12th, 2016) and Nathan Rodriguez (21st, 2016) and Beeker left trailing 3-1.
The game was being played at a fast pace, but then Max Cordy (40th, 2015) came in for the Kernels. The following chaos ensued: walk, groundout, stolen base, walk, wild pitch, walk, hit batsman, hit batsman, single plus error, single plus error. Cordy left having thrown 0.1 innings while giving up 6 runs (4 earned). In the top of the 9th, Jermaine Palacios hit a monster home run that cut the deficit to 7, but that was it as the Timber Rattlers won easily. The three home runs were the only extra-base hits on the evening.
Even with that rather prolonged meltdown, the game thankfully took only 2:27 with a PPM of 1.73. Having just come from Atlanta, I was quite cold by the end of the evening and happy to get back to my heated hotel.
It was Pirate Day, so the scoreboard had every Timber Rattler looking like a buccaneer, including Mario Feliciano (2nd round, 2016, now Milwaukee's #23 prospect). The fans took the promotion to heart, with many dressed in costume, while kids were given an eye patch. The player who best fit was Ryan Aguil-Arrrrrr (31st, 2016).
I'm heading to Peoria to see another Midwest League ballpark. The weekend weather is questionable, so I'm not sure if there will be a game tonight, but as you know by now, updates will be posted here in a timely manner.