Saturday, June 25, 2016
Omaha has been the home of the College World Series since 1950 with Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium hosting the tournament for its first 60 years. Rosenblatt was also home to the Omaha Royals, AAA affiliate of Kansas City since their formation in 1969. Between then and 2010, the AAA Royals were forced to take to the road in late June while the CWS took place, which meant that a sports road trip to catch both teams was difficult. All this changed in 2011 when two new stadiums were built. TD Ameritrade Park was constructed in downtown to be the home to the CWS (as well as Creighton baseball), while Werner Park was built about 20 miles southwest of the city in Papillion to house the Royals, who had renamed themselves Storm Chasers. I had visited Rosenblatt Stadium in 2001, but had to make another visit to Omaha to see Werner Park as part of my quest to see all active minor league ballparks. Naturally, I wanted to go during the CWS so I could add that to my list, and as it happens the Toronto Blue Jays have an interleague matchup with the Rockies in nearby Denver around the same time. A perfect combination and so I found myself in Omaha for a couple of Storm Chasers games.
Located in the middle of nowhere, Werner Park is surrounded mostly by parking lots. If you enter off Lincoln Avenue, these are free, but if you want to be a bit closer, there are $5 lots that save you a couple of minutes on foot. Alex Gordon was down on rehab for the two games I attended which drew nearly twice as many fans as average, but even then there was no problem getting in or out from the free lot.
The Storm Chasers employ dynamic pricing, which means there is no set price for a particular zone. There are six seating zones, with the most expensive being the Diamond Club, which is around $28. Other tickets range from $19 down to $11 for the Home Run Porch, but again that depends on the date and promotion (weekends are slightly more expensive). The main thing to note is that the difference between the Dugout Box down low between the bases and Infield Box in the upper rows is $1, while the Baseline Box seats further down the lines are $2 cheaper than that.
The park is not as elaborate as other new stadiums at this level, with the design quite similar to some AA parks that I have recently visited. The single seating bowl is below the concourse, with a few buildings behind that contain suites and the press box.
There is a path that encircles the entire stadium, and there are a few interesting things to note. There is a small tribute to Omaha native Bob Gibson along a back wall near the main entrance. Behind third base is a small standing table that allows you to rest your drink and your scorebook and gives a good view of the action.
A Family Fun Zone with a Ferris wheel and foosball table is in the left field corner, and an autograph bridge has been set up to allow fans to seek signatures as players walk from the clubhouse.
The stadium naming rights are owned by Werner Enterprises, a trucking company, and they have a series of plaques dedicated to their drivers who have completed more than 1 million, 2 million, 3 million miles. One gentleman has driven over 5 million miles, which assuming an average speed of 60 MPH, is nearly 10 years on the road.
Along the right field line is Gary's Greens, a six-hole mini golf course, while a tribute to Rosenblatt Stadium can be found on the main concourse near first base.
The sun sets beyond third base, so sit along that side to avoid the sun in your eyes for the first five innings of an evening game.
There are a number of concessions with a good variety at reasonable prices. My favourite stand was selling Nebraska Brewing Company cans for $6; these cans have lids that come completely off (as opposed to small tabs), an interesting innovation that debuted just last month. There are also your typical promotions throughout the game that are handled by an in-game host who is not overbearing. There are lots of giveaways throughout the game depending on what happens on the field.
Overall, I really enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere here, quite surprising given Gordon's appearance and the 8,000+ fans that attended both games. The concourses were more than wide enough for the crowds, with the only issue being on exit, when there were coupons being handed out that caused a bit of a traffic jam. Fans are friendly as are all the staff and ushers. The Storm Chasers won the PCL title in 2011 and the AAA championship in 2013 (a game I attended) and 2014. It's no coincidence that the Royals went to the World Series in 2014 and won it all in 2015. This organization, long the laughing stock of baseball, breeds winning and it shows here at Werner Park. Make plans to visit if you have yet to do so.
The Zephyrs (Miami's affiliate) were in town in a reversal of the matchup I saw in New Orleans just two weeks prior.
In the first game, Robert Andino (#11 above) led off with a home run off Miguel Almonte (Royals #4 prospect) and followed that up with a 2-run double in the second. In between that, Omaha's Ramon Torres tripled and scored on a Gordon (#6 below) groundout. The teams traded runs in the 6th, including a Jorge Bonifacio home run for Omaha that cut their deficit to 4-2. Unfortunately, the Storm Chaser bullpen fell apart in the last couple of innings as both Joe Beimel and Tyler Olson were slapped around as the Zephyrs added five runs, including another homer from Andino as New Orleans won 9-3.
The second game featured Alec Mills (22nd round, 2012, KC's #11 prospect) making his second AAA start for Omaha taking on Chris Reed (16th overall in 2011 by LA), who had a brief spell in the majors last year. The Chasers scored two in the second on a Torres single, and added another couple in the third on a couple of doubles and a wild pitch. As Reed slowly walked back to the mound after the wild pitch, he hung his head and I have never seen an athlete look so sad. I thought perhaps that his dog had died, but he is from England, so I guess he was just depressed about Brexit.
Anyway, the Zephyrs managed a run off Mills in the 6th on a walk, single, and double play, but that was all they would get. Omaha added two more in the 8th on RBI singles from Gordon and Bonifacio to win 6-1. Mills went 6.2 innings yielding just 5 hits and the lone earned run, so he gets my Player to Watch award.
The Zephyrs have announced the seven finalists for their new nickname. All of them have some connection to the city, such as Crawfish, King Cakes, and Po'Boys, but my vote is for Red Eyes. Ostensibly this refers to crawfish, but it also has links to New Orleans' wild nightlife scene, from which many revelers wake with red eyes. Results will be announced in a couple of weeks.
Saturday, June 18, 2016
My Toronto on the Road quest continues next week with a trip to Denver to see Troy Tulowitzki make his return to Coors Field, assuming he is off the DL by then. The schedule maker was kind to set this series while the College World Series was taking place in nearby Omaha. As it turns out, Omaha is also home to the AAA Storm Chasers, who play in one of the two PCL parks I have yet to visit, so everything works out very well. The full schedule is below:
Thu, Jun 23 New Orleans Zephyrs at Omaha Storm Chasers (PCL) 7:05 Fri, Jun 24 Arizona Wildcats vs Oklahoma State Cowboys (College World Series, Game 11) 2:00 Fri, Jun 24 New Orleans Zephyrs at Omaha Storm Chasers (PCL) 7:05 Sat, Jun 25 TCU Horned Frogs vs Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (Bracket 2 Elimination Game) 19:00 Sun, Jun 26 Arizona Diamondbacks at Colorado Rockies 2:10 Mon, Jun 27 Toronto Blue Jays at Colorado Rockies 6:40 Tue, Jun 28 Toronto Blue Jays at Colorado Rockies 6:40 Wed, Jun 29 Toronto Blue Jays at Colorado Rockies 1:10As always, check back for recaps!
Thursday, June 16, 2016
After watching an afternoon game in Mobile, I made the short drive to Pensacola to complete the two-state twinbill. The Blue Wahoos are celebrating their fifth anniversary though the franchise itself has been around since 1959 and most recently played in Zebulon as the AA version of the Carolina Mudcats. In 2012, they moved to the Florida Panhandle to play in Blue Wahoos Stadium, part of the Maritime Park area on Pensacola Bay.
Getting to the stadium is quite easy as it is just a mile or so from the end of the I-110 spur into the city. There is plenty of free parking around as meters expire at 5 p.m. and there is not much traffic downtown in the evening. From the outside, the stadium really doesn't resemble a ballpark, with the ticket window lineups the only obvious sign that a game is imminent.
Go through the main gate and up a staircase to reach the main concourse, making sure to note all the awards that the team has earned in its short history, which you can see above.
Blue Wahoos Stadium has the smallest capacity in AA with only 5,038 seats, so over the first few years tickets have been difficult to get, with many sellouts. This season though, the shine seems to be wearing off and there were plenty of seats available when I visited. Prices are very reasonable with a $7 GA seat a decent choice as there are plenty of standing tables along the concourse. If you want to sit, box seats are $12, with reserved seats down the lines $10 (add $2 to all tickets for Friday and Saturday games). Season seat holders can resell their tickets through the Blue Wahoos and these are an extra $1.50 for some reason.
You cannot walk all the way around, but you can get behind the outfield fence, which gives you a good view of the layout. There are no suites, though there are some club seats in the lower rows behind home plate.
The press box and team store are housed in a building behind home plate, along with a small bar known as Bubba's Sandtrap, named after two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson who is a minority owner, and who appears on the scoreboard several times throughout the game to exhort fans to cheer their team.
There is no cover over the seating bowl, so when it drizzles, fans move back to the concourse and seek shelter. Note the difference between the roof along third base (below) and the canopy along first (above). You might also notice that the foul poles are pink (rubine red actually), which shows support for breast cancer awareness according to the team.
Concessions here are quite nice too, with a good variety, much of it seafood based. There is also a dollar menu that includes mini pretzels, small bags of popcorn, and tiny cups of soda. There are two concession stands labeled Port Side and Starboard Side to maintain the nautical theme. The free program lists all available items and their price, something that all teams should consider.
There is an in-game host known as DJ Double Play who is not overbearing and runs the promotions efficiently. A wahoo is a type of fish, but the mascot Kazoo is simply called an aquatic creature.
Overall, Blue Wahoos Stadium is one of the top minor league parks in the country. Facing Pensacola Bay gives it one of the best views you'll ever get at this level; add in the affordable tickets and food choices and you understand why this is a premier destination for all ballpark travellers.
Montgomery (Tampa Bay) was in town to take on the Blue Wahoos (ironically the Reds affiliate) to finish up a 5-game set. The pitching matchup was very intriguing, with the two starters both former first-round picks: Nick Travieso for Pensacola and Taylor Guerrieri for Montgomery. Travieso was drafted 14th overall out of high school in 2012 and is working his way up the Reds chain, sitting as their #9 prospect at the moment. Guerrieri was drafted 24th overall out of high school in 2011 but Tommy John surgery and a 50-game suspension for drug abuse have slowed his progress, but he is considered the Rays #6 prospect this year.
After three scoreless innings, the Biscuits got on the board first when Travieso struggled with command. A hit batsman, a walk, and two wild pitches put runners on second and third and Cade Gotta (26th, 2014) directed a single to right to score both. Guerrieri lasted five frames, yielding just 3 hits, while Travieso completed six innings with just the two runs blemishing his line. This made it a battle of the bullpens, and Blue Wahoos were out of their depth here. El'Hajj Muhammad (49th, 2010, out of New Jersey) started the 7th and promptly gave up a double and misplayed a bunt. A suicide squeeze scored a run, and after a deep fly ball, Muhammad left with two outs and runners on the corners, to be replaced by Nick Routt (16th, 2012), who is not well named for a pitcher. When Routt was done, the rout was on as he gave up a walk, a bases loaded double to Patrick Leonard (5th round, 2011 by KC), and a single as the Biscuits took a 7-0 lead. Pensacola did manage a run in the 8th on a walk, two wild pitches, and a sacrifice fly, earning a sarcastic cheer from the few remaining fans.
The scoreboard turned off before I could snap a picture, so you'll have to trust me that I stayed until the end. A good game for six innings, but as is the case in baseball so often these days, it was the bullpens that decided it.
I saw three games along the Gulf Coast in just over 24 hours, and the home teams combined to lose all three by a score of 23-6. My deepest apologies for jinxing you.
I'm off to Omaha for the College World Series next week and Denver for the Blue Jays just after. The schedule will be posted shortly, so check back for that.
Wednesday, June 15, 2016
The reason I choose this week to do a quick trip to the Gulf Coast was a day-night doubleheader in Mobile and Pensacola. These cities are less than an hour apart, so it was a perfect chance to knock off two ballparks in one day. About 70 miles of Alabama lies along the coast between Florida and Mississippi and Mobile is right in the middle of it. The city has a storied baseball history, with its most prominent son being Hank Aaron, so it should be no surprise that the AA Mobile BayBears play out of Hank Aaron Stadium. That's mascot Bay B. Bear greeting me below.
The ballpark is located just north of I-10 at the I-65 interchange, in a rather nondescript neighbourhood quite far from downtown Mobile. Parking here is $5, but you have no choice as there are no other spots within walking distance. Fortunately tickets are half price on Tuesday so I got a seat for $5. This place draws very poorly so you never have to pay more than the minimum, though for day games, you might want to ensure that you are sitting in a shaded seat.
Despite being opened in 1997, this is an old-style stadium, with a single entrance that leads to a concourse with no view of the field. Go up the stairs to enter the seating bowl, which is separated by a walkway. The seats are not that comfortable; in fact I thought the stadium was 50 years old as I wandered around. As you can see below, the roof covers the top five rows of about three sections. Suites and party areas are located at field level, so any seats between the bases are elevated.
If you want to sit at field level, you have to go down the lines, which doesn't provide the best view. You can see those seats in the photo below.
There are a couple of features inside the concourse that are worth noting. First, seats from County Stadium in Milwaukee (below), Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, and Wrigley Field are on display, along with a poster highlighting historic happenings at the stadium in question, with particular focus on Aaron's accomplishments.
There is also a small Wall of Fame just inside the main entrance that emulates Cooperstown and has about six inductees, including Buddy Carlyle, who played in Japan while I was there.
However, the most impressive attraction lies outside the stadium. In 2010, Aaron's childhood home was moved here and turned into a small museum that provides an extensive look into his life and baseball career. Admission is free and the house is air conditioned, so it makes a great place to visit before the game.
There are many pieces of memorabilia here and quite a bit of text that details his home runs year by year. Definitely a must see for any baseball fan. I'm only showing the trophy awarded for his 500th home run, but there are many other things on display. Do not miss this if you visit Mobile; it is one of the best on-site features at any minor league ballpark.
It is these extras that make a visit to Hank Aaron Stadium rewarding. The stadium gets a lot of poor reviews as it doesn't compare well to all the new ballparks dotting the minor league landscape, but it isn't that bad. I can see why the BayBears struggle to attract local fans (the team is last in the league in attendance at 1,600 per game) but as a stadium traveller, this is one of the better places I have visited for seeing a bit of baseball history.
Jacksonville (Miami) was in town to take on the BayBears (Arizona) on camp day, which saw several groups of rambunctious youngsters and a few tired counsellors in the crowd. The Suns scored first when Brian Anderson (3rd round, 2014, Miami's #12 prospect) launched a 2-run shot to left field in the top of the third off Luke Irvine (27th, 2011 by Tampa Bay). In the next inning, while showers were falling, Jacksonville added 3 runs on 4 hits and a walk, but Mobile responded with 3 of their own in the bottom half, including a 2-run homer from journeyman minor leaguer Travis Denker (21st, 2003, Dodgers), who had a cup of coffee with the Giants in 2008 (think about that - he's playing AA 8 years after making the majors).
After that the rain stopped and so did the runs. The Suns added one in the 7th and another in the 9th to win 7-3 in a game that lasted 3:05 due to 13 walks issued by both teams. Patrick Johnson (25th, 2011 by Colorado) got the win, yielding just 3 hits in 6 innings, along with 3 walks. Not a very interesting game, but at least there were no errors.
Attendance was 2,026, exactly 2 less than the previous night's game in Biloxi. About 90% of that number was kids.
I met a couple of fellow sports travellers in Jack and Dave from Philadelphia, who I had seen in Biloxi as well. It was Jack's 100th minor league park, so congratulations are in order! Always good to meet others chasing ballparks, and sure enough, they were in Pensacola that night too. More on that in the next post.
Tuesday, June 14, 2016
After being rained out on Sunday evening in Pearl, Mississippi, I spent some time rejigging my schedules to see how I could get back there this season. Fortunately a later trip has me close to Mississippi so I will revisit Trustmark Park in August, and thus was able to continue this trip as planned with a game in Biloxi on Monday night.
The Biloxi Shuckers are in their second year of operation after moving from Huntsville, Alabama to begin the 2015 campaign. Their new stadium, MGM Park, was not ready when the season began, so they played on the road for a while (including 15 games in Huntsville) before opening their new digs in June of last year. The Shuckers nickname received a few laughs nationally, but it was chosen in a fan contest and celebrates the oyster and seafood industries that make up a large part of the city's heritage, and the locals have taken to it. The logo is great in my opinion.
Next to a smaller entrance is a statue of a lion, the symbol of MGM.
Biloxi is a beach resort town with a number of casinos, and MGM Park is located right in the middle of it. Across the street is the Beau Rivage Casino, with the Gulf of Mexico just behind. The only view of the water is from the second level along first base and even that is blocked by the casino's parking deck across the street. Parking is free here, and you have provides easy access to I-110, the highway on the right of the photo below that takes you to I-10 and points east or west.
It is the casino that dominates the view beyond center field.
The layout is fairly typical, with a single seating bowl below an uncovered concourse and suites above, along with a few bleacher seats out on the berm. As the stadium is next to the Gulf of Mexico, only the field is at street level, with the concourse up a set of stairs. It should be noted that Biloxi was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 but without all the media coverage afforded New Orleans. The town has rebounded in the ensuing decade, and the Shuckers are part of that renewal.
Tickets are reasonably priced, though the cheapest is a $10 berm seat, a bit more than usual for general admission. There are many standing areas around the concourse with tables on which to rest your dinner and scorebook as you can see above. I used these for the first few innings before moving to the seating bowl. It was a wet Monday and the NBA Finals were on, so the crowd was a bit smaller than usual (2,000 vs an average of 2,600), leaving most sections beyond the bases wide open.
Food here is incredibly varied for a stadium at this level, with much of it seafood. The concession names are also very creative. I had found a nearby bar before the game (Adventures Pub and Spirits, highly recommended) and dined there, so I did not partake at the stadium, but found the choice to be very impressive and reasonably priced. Seafood is also featured in the mascot race, where a crawfish takes on a cob of corn and a potato.
As the team is still new, there isn't a lot of history on display. The ballpark still feels like a work in progress with some blank spaces on the walls, but as the team sees players make the majors (Milwaukee's #4 prospect Josh Hader just got called up to AAA), a "Road to the Show" display should make an appearance along with other fun facts. There were a couple of posters on a fence outside, including one with Hader (on the right below).
Overall, I enjoyed my time here. I'm not sure why the team is not drawing more fans as they provide an affordable evening out in a good location. I guess it will take time for the team to settle in completely, but regardless, I do recommend a visit to MGM Park next time you are on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.
Birmingham (White Sox) was in town to take on Biloxi. Jorge Ortega started for the Shuckers while the Barons countered with David Holmberg (2nd round in 2009) who has started 12 games in the majors with Arizona and Cincinnati.
This was a messy affair, with the teams combining for 6 errors. Four of those were Shucker miscues, which led to three unearned runs and doomed Ortega to his sixth loss without a win this season. No need to recap other than to say an ugly 5-run fifth gave the Barons a 9-1 lead and made the second half of the game rather dull. Biloxi did score another run to make it slightly closer as Birmingham won 9-2.
There were two players I'd like to note in addition to top prospects such as Brett Phillips, who is #2 on the Brewers list. First is Eddy Alvarez of Birmingham, a small slap hitter who won a silver medal in the 5,000 meter speed skating relay at Sochi. His 5'9 160 frame is probably too small for a regular role majors, but he managed a home run on this night off the right field foul pole, his first in AA. He could be a useful utility player down the line, and if he makes it, expect to hear a lot more about him due to his unique background.
Johnny Davis is another interesting story. He did not start playing organized baseball until he was 22, but he was drafted in the 22nd round as a 23-year-old in 2013 when he was considered the fastest player available. Since then, he has moved his way up the Milwaukee chain and recently joined the Shuckers. He has no power whatsoever (about 10% of his hits in the minors have been doubles or triples) but he does hit for a decent average. He is probably too old to make a real run at the majors, but again, it is amazing that he is in AA in only his fourth season of ball.
This was my 660th venue lifetime, 250th ballpark, and 1st venue in Mississippi. I still have to see games in Alaska, North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming to complete all 50 states.
The Sunday night rainout in Pearl was only the third I have encountered on my minor league trips. In 2001, a Midwest League game in Appleton, Wisconsin was postponed and I have yet to be back; while in 2009, a game in Norwich, Connecticut was called off due to wet grounds, causing me to miss a Madison Bumgarner start. I returned to Dodd Stadium last season to finally check it off.
The rainout was due in part to a surprise storm that passed through about 45 minutes before game time, surprising the grounds crew, who didn't have time to put on the tarp. The field was drenched, and once the rain stopped, it took the better part of an hour for the crew to get things back to normal. By then, more rain was forecast, so the tarp came out and we were told to go home. A disappointment, but such is life when traveling to watch baseball.
Sunday, June 12, 2016
My minor league stadium quest continues this week with a trip to four Southern League ballparks in Mississippi (Jackson and Biloxi), Alabama (Mobile), and Florida (Pensacola). Flights to these smaller cities are more expensive though, so I decided to fly to New Orleans instead. As it turns out, the New Orleans Zephyrs were home on the evening I travelled, so I stopped by Zephyr Field to see a AAA game to start the trip.
Zephyr Field is just a couple of miles from the airport along Airline Drive, and you do get the occasional airplane flying over, much like Citi Field. That is the only similarity though as this ballpark is probably the worst among the 30 AAA franchises.
There is nothing wrong with the routine stadium design; two levels of seating with suites on the upper level, some standing areas along the concourse, and a few amenities, including a pool, behind the right field fence. But that is about it.
The Zephyrs are the affiliate of the Miami Marlins, and just like their parent club, they have trouble drawing fans. First, the location is somewhat out of the way and not easily accessible. Add on the $5 parking charge and you are already battling to attract fans.
For a culinary city such as New Orleans, i would expect food choices to be more varied and much better. I had a sausage po'boy that looked like it had been sitting in the stadium since my last visit in 2001. At $8, it was also overpriced, though to be fair, was not that bad in the taste department. There are a few other local options but presentation needs to be improved.
Fortunately tickets are reasonably priced, and with so few fans you can sit anywhere you want, so buy the general admission seat at $7 and do just that.
That's all to report. There is nothing here to suggest an affiliation with Miami, or any history on the walls, or anything interesting at all. The starting lineups and PCL standings are posted, but every ballpark has something similar. It just seems like no effort is being made here to make the experience more fan friendly, other than perhaps throwing beads into the stands, a New Orleans tradition. With all that being said, I did enjoy my time here because it was a beautiful evening and I got an entire section to myself, but I don't expect to make a return visit.
Omaha (KC's affiliate) was in town and former Met John Lannan got the start for them, one of several ex-MLBers in both lineups. Another was Travis Snider (below) who was Toronto's first-round draft pick in 2006 but never reached his promise.
Dylan Axelrod, who has 59 MLB games to his name, started for New Orleans and gave up a leadoff double to Irving Falu, who later scored on a single by Jorge Bonifacio. After that though, Axelrod was very sharp, retiring 13 in a row at one point. Meanwhile, the Zephyrs scored a run in the first on a leadoff double from one-time Oriole Robert Andino, who moved to third on a single from Austin Nola and scored on a sacrifice fly from Destin Hood. Andino, Nola and Hood combined for another run in the fifth on three singles and then Xavier Scruggs crushed a homer in the sixth to extend the Zephyrs lead. Lannan was knocked out of the game when the following batter lined one of his right forearm, but the damage was done. Tyler Kinley and Craig Breslow combined for two shutout innings of relief for New Orleans as they won 3-1 in a game that took just 2:17 and sent the 1,471 fans home happy. Yes, 1,471 for AAA baseball. I can't imagine there are other cities in the area who could better support a minor league franchise.
The Zephyrs are changing their name next year, so the name of the stadium should also change. It is so mundane though, I wonder if any company would sponsor it.
Nola is the brother of Phillies pitcher Aaron and an LSU grad. When the Zephyrs wear their third jersey, it says NOLA on the front, thus making Austin one of the few players to have his name on both the front and back of his jersey.
The college baseball super regionals are taking place this weekend and LSU was hosting Game 1 of their series against Coastal Carolina in Baton Rouge, about 90 minutes away. I briefly considered going there, but was glad I didn't: the game lasted 4:24 as LSU lost 11-8. If there is a Game 3 on Monday afternoon, I'll try to make that. Update: CCU won Game 2 as well, so no Game 3. Not that it would have mattered, even if LSU had won, the game would have been at 4, too late to make Biloxi at 7.
I'm in Pearl, Mississippi (a suburb of Jackson, the state capital) to see the Mississippi Braves host Jackson (a city in Tennessee). Check back for the recap tomorrow. Or don't, because the game was rained out.