Thursday, April 29, 2010

California League Doubleheader - Two Ballparks, Long Wait - April 28, 2010


One of the great joys of a sports road trip is the early morning minor league game. These are scheduled to give school kids a chance to attend and perhaps build some brand loyalty. The good side is that the game is over by 1pm, so you have the afternoon and evening to tour. But the best thing though is when there is an evening game close by; there's nothing better than two games in two stadiums on the same day. So it was with great anticipation that I headed out yesterday for a 10:30 am game in Rancho Cucamonga with a 7:05 tilt in nearby San Bernardino for the nightcap.

Game 1 - Visalia Rawhide 7 at Rancho Cucamonga Quakes 1

The Epicenter

The Quakes play at the Epicenter, a cute connection until the Big One hits I guess. The Epicenter is considered more than just a ballpark; it is labelled as a Entertainment and Sports Complex and hosts concerts among other events. Located just off Rochester Avenue south of Foothill Blvd and easily accessible from I-15, the ballpark is surrounded by 3 smaller softball fields which lay empty on this morning. Parking is $4 although there seemed to an additional lot across Rochester which looked to be free. I only noticed this on the way out so didn't know if it was opened for the game. Either way, the parking lot is a couple of minutes from the entrance, so there is no foul ball danger here.


The stadium itself is designed more like an arts center, with an all-white granite exterior with dark windows on the upper level. There are tall palm trees around the one central entrance. Inside there are your typical features: banners of Quakes who have made the majors (the Angels are the MLB team); a Quakes Hall of Fame, and starting lineups.


There are four seating options, but unfortunately there is netting above the dugout here too, so the upper club section is preferred as it allows a clear view of the field. In fact, the netting extends quite a way down the line, so even lower seats past first base are "protected". Get row F or above if you want to sit in the Field Box seats past the bases. In the picture below you can see the netting extending well down the lines.



In each outfield corner there are cafes which are used for parties. As this was an early game, they were quite empty, as was the whole stadium for that matter, with a total attendance of just 862, mostly rambunctious kids.

Measurements are 330 down the lines and 401 to center although the 401 number was shown twice so perhaps the actual distance to center is slightly further. There are two scoreboards, one is a larger linescore board with a video screen above it while the other shows the R/H/E line and also includes the pitch speed.

There are three retired numbers: 42 for Jackie Robinson; 26 for the Fans; and 20 for Matt LaChappa, a 2nd-round pick who suffered a heart attack in the bullpen back in 1996. If you are getting cynical and tired of all the crap in sports, this story about LaChappa from 2006 should help you remember that there is plenty of good in the game.

Overall, this stadium is nice but suffers from too much protective netting, reducing the number of good seats significantly. Furthermore, the Quakes have two mascots: Tremor and Aftershock. Unfortunately, their main job seemed to be standing on the dugout blocking my view as you can see below. Hey guys, there's 700 kids in the stands, go sign autographs and get outta my way!


The Game


Ryan Cook, the 27th round pick of Arizona in 2008 started for Visalia while the Quakes sent undrafted Dominican prospect Manaurys Correa (above) to the hill. First pitch was at 10:39 am. Heaven.

In the top of the second, Visalia's Marc Krauss (2nd, 2009) hit a deep fly to center seemed uncatchable, but Tyson Auer ran it down, only to have it fall out of his glove. It was correctly ruled a double, but the next play was doubtless an error. Kyle Greene (11th, 2008) grounded to second but it was bobbled by Ivan Contreras to put runners on the corners with one out. Two singles and an RBI groundout made it 3-0 Rawhide.

Alexi Amarista fouls one off

Angel Castillo got one back in the bottom of the 2nd with a solo shot but that was it until the 9th inning as both starters settled down. Cook was particularly impressive, going 6 strong with 5 strikeouts and only 1 walk. Correa finished 7 innings giving up only the 1 earned run but his offense couldn't help him out. Chris Scholl (8th, 2008) took over and gave up 4 runs in the 9th, including a 2-run triple to Rey Navarro (3rd, 2007). Rancho Cucamonga went quietly in the 9th and the Rawhide won 7-1.

Ryan Wheeler (5th, 2009) grounds to third here

Each team committed 3 errors as I guess the players aren't used to the early start. The game took 2:13, which was too short. I now had nearly 7 hours to kill before the next game in San Bernardino, just 15 miles away.


Player to Watch

Navarro was going to get this award after a 2-5 day including the 2-run triple, but he committed an error in the bottom of the ninth and thus was eliminated from contention. Hey, I'm harsh!

So the winner is Rancho Cucamonga catcher Roberto Lopez (25th, 2008), who made two outs at the plate, taking a solid hit both times but holding on to the ball and looking none the worse for wear. He was 1-4 at the plate with a long double. Lopez is really a utility player who spent 4 years at USC before tearing up the Pioneer League in 2008. Let's see if he can make the Angels in the next few years.

Between Games

The first stop was In-N-Out for a Double Double. Yum. But I couldn't spend 6 hours there, so I then drove along Foothill Blvd towards San Bernardino, where the Inland Empire 66ers play.

San Bernardino is the county seat for San Bernardino County, the largest county by area in the continental U.S. The Inland Empire is the name for the entire region that includes San Bernardino County as well as Riverside County to the south. It might be most famous for a recent David Lynch movie, but Death Valley National Park is also part of the area. Rancho Cucamonga is among the cities located here, and the team based in San Bernardino used to use the city name, going by the Stampede before changing to the Inland Empire 66ers in 2o03.

Foothill Blvd is part of historic Route 66, but it has seen better days. I noticed dozens of businesses that were closed; I'm not sure if they were a victim of the recent recession or from before. I did pass the Wigwam Motel which might be worth a night's stay next time I am in town.

I arrived in San Bernardino around 2:30, so had to spend 3 hours looking around before I could go to the game. I tried visiting a mall to do some shopping but perhaps only 30% of the stores were open. Even the barber was desperate for business, shouting out "Haircuts, haircuts here" as I walked by. I wonder how many people are going to suddenly think "Now that he mentions it, I could use a little trim". Bizarre and a little sad.

The only point of interest I noticed here was the McDonald's Museum as San Bernardino is the home of the first ever McDonald's restaurant opened in 1940. I am not a big fan of corporate advertising masquerading as tourist attractions so I didn't visit, but it turns out it's operated independently of the corporation. I'll have to check it out next time as it is free.

By now it was close to 4:00 so I went looking for a place where I could catch some of the Capitals-Canadiens game 7, but couldn't find anything remotely close to a sports bar. I had even done some research but the places I wrote down were all out of business. I resigned myself to grabbing a Coke at McDonald's and waiting until 5:30 when I could drive to the park.

This area does seem to be suffering significantly from the recession. The downtown area was devoid of any life, although this was a Wednesday afternoon, not exactly party time. San Bernardino seemed to be more a government center than a tourist spot although I am partly to blame for not preparing properly.

Game 2 - Lake Elsinore Storm at Inland Empire 66ers

Arrowhead Credit Union Park

Located between E and G Streets just south of Rialto Avenue, the park was built in 1996 and originally known as the Ranch to maintain the western theme as the team was the Stampede. The motif remains western though, with deep gold walls and light brown trim. There are three arches at the main entrance which are now ruined by a rather unattractive sign promoting the sponsor.


Parking here is $4 when you enter off G Street. There is also an entrance off E Street for the administrative offices but that seems to be blocked off for game parking.

Once inside, there's a sign labelled Route of Champions that shows the distance from San Bernardino to the other Dodger affiliates. This is a good idea and should be added to all the parks to increase awareness of minor league ball. Other typical features such as lineups and 66ers made good are here. There are also extensive game notes for $1 that complement the free program.

The best thing about this park is the absence of netting above the dugout. I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but the sign below is much better, although they should probably repaint the P.


I bought a seat above the dugout for $10 but there are $6 tickets and you can sit pretty much anywhere. The seats down the lines are angled towards home plate but few people were sitting that far away.

There are some nice mountain views over center field although it was hazy yesterday. You can see the LA sign behind home plate to remind you this is a Dodgers' affiliate.


The scoreboard is also quite impressive, the video screen must be the largest in A ball and it is good quality. They even show the entire batting lineup as you can see in the picture below.


It's 410 feet to center but there were no measurements down the line. There are 4 retired numbers including Ken Griffey Jr's 24 and Chin-Feng Chen's 43. Chen was the first Taiwanese to play in MLB, but before that he belted 31 homers for San Bernardino in 1999.

The Game

It was already cold when the Dodgers' 2008 1st-rounder (15th overall) Ethan Martin threw the first pitch at 7:05. Drew Cumberland (1st, 46th overall, 2007) promptly tripled and scored on a wild pitch. Cody Decker (22nd, 2009) doubled and Allan Dykstra, the Padres' 1st-round pick (23rd overall) in 2008, singled him home for a quick 2-0 lead.

In the top of the 2nd Joe Agreste tripled with one out. After Danny Payne struck out, Martin threw a wild pitch to Cumberland. Agreste raced for home but the ball didn't bounce far away and he was tagged out by Martin on the throw from catcher Tony Delmonico (6th, 2008, shown striking out below).


Lake Elsinore added to their lead when Cole Figueroa (6th, 2008) walked and was balked to second by Martin. Vince Belnome (28th, 2009) singled him home for a 3-0 lead.

In the 5th, Cumberland singled, stole twice, and scored again on a wild pitch, Martin's third of the night. A sacrifice fly by Australia native Michael Collins who has WBC experience and is shown below made it 5-0 and spelled the end for Martin.


Meanwhile, Storm starter Jorge Reyes was able to work out of jams, stranding 7 runners in his 5 frames without giving up a run. Inland Empire managed 2 runs on a Clay Calfee (14th, 2008) double in the 8th but that was all they would get and the final was 5-2 Lake Elsinore.

This game was rather ho-hum. The 66ers had 10 hits and 4 walks but left runners in all but one inning. The tying run did come to the plate in the 9th but Steven Caseres (9th, 2008) grounded out to closer Brad Brach (42nd, 2008) who notched his 8th save to lead the league.

Player to Watch

I gave the award to Storm shortstop Drew Cumberland who tripled, singled, stole two bases, scored on two wild pitches and played solid defense including snaring a line drive to start a 6-4 double play. Turns out he was the Padres' 1st-round pick 3 years ago. Given he is still in A-ball, he might not be progressing that well although his stats seem pretty good. Several players from that draft (notably Rays' starter David Price) already have MLB experience while others are in AAA. Still, this award is given without prior knowledge of the players, so let's see if I actually know anything about baseball.

Notes

The team store at Inland Empire had a poster showing the hat designs for all 160 minor league teams. I inquired as to its availability but was told it was not for sale. That's too bad, as it would look good in the apartment back home. I did a quick count and it appears as if I've been to 76 of the teams, which means 84 still to go. Many of the teams I've visited in the past are no longer active, so I don't have a total count of minor league parks visited.

I've started adding the draft position and year for the players I mention. I think it helps to see how long the player has been in the organization as well as where he was drafted. First-round picks are also given their overall spot, while players with no information were undrafted.

The 66ers' pitching coach is Charlie Hough, known for his knuckleball and very long career, which finished with a 216-216 record. That's him below returning to the dugout after a chat with Martin early in the game.


These two games were quite the contrast in attendances. The morning game was about 75% children, so each foul ball was followed by screaming kids racing along the empty rows looking for the souvenir. The nightcap was cold and had few kids, so foul balls were generally left alone and the park was much quieter except for the occasional drunk guy yapping at the visiting players.

The people next to me were Lake Elsinore supporters and we were sitting in the first row behind the dugout. At one point they tossed them a ball but they dropped it and it rolled to me. I took it and offered it back but they didn't want it so I've now got a Cal League baseball to add to the collection.

Next Up

The Pirates are in Los Angeles to take on the Dodgers tonight. LA is struggling and are returning after having been swept in New York, and Pittsburgh is just Pittsburgh, so this game isn't one rife with anticipation. But Dodger Stadium is always a nice place to visit, so check back here for a recap tomorrow.

Best,

Sean

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