Saturday, June 30, 2012

Dunedin Blue Jays 11 at Daytona Cubs 10 - June 29, 2012


The Daytona Cubs are the only team in the Florida State League who don't play in a stadium that is also used during spring training. So I was really looking forward to seeing a typical minor league ballpark to finish off the Florida portion of the trip and complete the entire league at the same time. It turned out to be one of the best experiences I have enjoyed on a sports road trip.

Jackie Robinson Ballpark

In 1946, Jackie Robinson was to play in his first spring training with the Montreal Royals after signing a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Royals' parent club. The two teams were scheduled to face off in an exhibition game that would be the first integrated game in the majors in the modern era. (Little known fact: there were two black ballplayers in major league baseball with the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884.) Cities such as Jacksonville and Deland chose to close their ballparks rather than allow the game to take place. Fortunately, Daytona Beach was a more progressive town and allowed the game to occur on March 17th at their City Island Ballpark. Sixty-six years later and that same ballpark still stands, now renamed Jackie Robinson Ballpark in honour of the man who broke baseball's colour barrier.



Built in 1914, the park has undergone numerous renovations in the intervening century, but still retains the aura of a bygone era. The ticket window outside the Magnolia St entrance (below) is the first sign of this. The other entrance is on Orange St and it is here that you will find the Jackie Robinson statue. Note that the free parking lot behind the stadium leads to the Magnolia St entrance and you should walk around to the other side if you want to get a look at the statue before going in.



The stadium was renamed to Jackie Robinson Ballpark in 1989 and since then, a number of additions have made this more than just a sports venue, but a historical lesson as well. On the wall behind the Cubs' clubhouse are several panels describing Robinson's life and the struggles he faced in trying to break the colour barrier.



As well, there are panels along the Riverwalk that talk about other "Barrier Breakers", such as Willie O'Ree who was the first black player in the NHL. At the Picnic Porch in right field is another display, this time related to the Jim Crow laws that were in force in the 1940s. It is no coincidence that this is set here as the Picnic Porch area was once the Jim Crow section where black fans were forced to sit. Take the time to walk around and read all of these, they are well-written and informative. I should also note that much of this is open to the public between 9 and 5 during the day, so even if the Cubs are not in town, you can stop by for a visit.



After you have refreshed your history knowledge, it is time to refresh yourself by enjoying the plaza next to the Riverwalk. I found the food selections here to be the best in the league and affordably priced. Large (32 oz) beers are just $5.75 and there were plenty of options both at the concession stand and a grill on the third base side, where a freshly-cooked cheeseburger was only $4.25. There are several picnic tables where you can sit and enjoy your pre-game feast next to the river. You will also notice banners of famous players who plied their trade here, including Stan Musial and Kerry Wood. As well, there is a "Road to the Show" wall that lists every Daytona Cub who has made the majors, including the year(s) he spent in Daytona as well as the date of his first MLB game. Most obviously made their debut with Chicago, but a few were traded, such as Eric Hinske, who won Rookie of the Year with Toronto in 2002.



Inside the seating bowl is where you realize that this is really an old-time ballpark. A low-hanging roof covers the entire grandstand, where all seats are $7, except those in the first row which go for $12. There are even obstructed view seats as the poles supporting the roof are near the front of each section. As you might be able to see below, the entire section here is protected by netting.



Despite being covered, the setting sun does strike the grandstand before the game, making it a pleasant place to watch the players warmup.



The bleachers along third base are uncovered, but even there the netting above the dugout obstructs the view. Given that this ballpark is nearly 100 years old though and that home plate is quite close to the seating area, the netting is a necessity to protect fans. You can avoid this by sitting at the top few rows here.


The scoreboard is manually operated by two people throughout the game. It may appear to be old, but was actually added in the most recent renovation. Even the ball/strike/out counters are done manually and sometimes the count is partially blocked by one of the gentleman working out there, at least from the angle I was sitting at.


Overall, this is the best ballpark in the league. Sure the others are newer and bigger, but if you want the true minor league experience in the Florida State League, you only need visit Jackie Robinson Ballpark in Daytona Beach.



The Game

Dunedin was in town so I wore my Blue Jays jersey, the only one I saw in the lively crowd of over 3,000. The Jays jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first when Jake Marisnick (3rd, 2009) led off with a homer (just like he did in Dunedin) and Marcus Knecht (3rd, 2010) followed with a 2-run shot. Jesse Hernandez started for Dunedin and retired the first six hitters he faced, but fell apart in the third and fourth inningss, giving up 9 hits and 7 runs before being relieved by Alan Farina (3rd, 2007). Farina was equally inept, yielding a threespot in his inning of work. In other words, it was 10-3 Daytona after five frames.



These young Jays have a powerful team that just won the first-half title so I still had hope. Sure enough, Cubs starter Frank Del Valle (above) tired in the sixth, walking Knecht and giving up a single to Kevin Ahrens (16th overall, 2007) before leaving. Ryan Searle came in and walked Jack Murphy (31st, 2009, now promoted to New Hampshire) to load the bases. DH Oliver Dominguez followed with a monster grand slam to cut the margin to just 3. Searle remained in the game despite being clearly fatigued, as the Daytona bullpen was overtired and had no other options, due to a promotion earlier in the day. This worked in the Jays favour as Jon Talley (13th, 2007) simply crushed one in the 7th to make it 10-8.

Scott Weismann (46th, 2011) worked a scoreless the 8th for the Cubs while Dunedin relievers Englebrook and Dustin Antolin (11th, 2008) had kept Daytona off the board through the same inning, sending us to the top of the ninth with the Cubs still up two.

Weismann remained in and Marisnick led off with a single to bring the tying run to the plate. After a couple of out, Talley was the Jays' last chance. Down to his last strike, he lined a single to left to bring up Knecht. Two quick strikes and again it was do or die time. Knecht connected (see what I did there?) with a hanging curve and sent it deep into the night, a 3-run shot that gave Dunedin the lead and stunned the remaining fans, who had likely thought the game over long ago.



Dunedin closer Danny Barnes (35th, 2010) was brought in for the save and got Rebel Ridling (25th, 2008) looking, except the umpire missed the call, much to the disbelief of the Jays' dugout. Given a second chance, Ridling doubled and was pinch run for by Dustin Harrington (34th, 2010). A sacrifice bunt moved Harrington to third and Ronald Torreyes walked. Chad Noble (37th, 2010) came up and flew to shallow right. Surprisingly, manager Brian Harper sent Harrington and Jonathan Jones (29th, 2010) throw was on the money. Murphy held on as Harrington bowled into him and the game was over! Blue Jays win 11-10. Amazing! There is no way the runner would have been sent in the majors, but given the defense in the minors, it makes sense to force the issue and Jones responded with a great throw.

One of the best minor league games I have seen, mainly because Dunedin was involved. It is gratifying when you are wearing the jersey of the visiting team and they storm back from seven runs down to win, even at this level. The local fans were gracious in defeat as they knew they had seen a great contest. A perfect way to end my three weeks in Florida.

Notes

It was Military Appreciation Night which is why the Cubs were wearing those camouflage jerseys you see in the picture above. Before the game some new Marines were sworn in, and then the guest of honour, Sgt. Slaughter appeared. Yes, a pro wrestler was there and he made sure the crowd cheered on the military in attendance. He also did sang "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and signed autographs all night long.



Jackie Robinson wore #9 in that first game before switching to the now universally retired #42, and this fact is noted on a sign in the outfield. Richie Zisk's #22 is also retired on a pole beyond right field.



One somewhat intoxicated fan, noticing my Blue Jays jersey, asked me where "Duneldlin" is. I told him it was a town in the Tampla Blay area.

Best,

Sean

Brevard County Manatees 1 at Tampa Yankees 7 - June 28, 2012


In 1989, the Cincinnati Reds moved their spring training operations from the Tampa area, ending a stretch of 75 consecutive years in which the city had hosted a major league team during the pre-season. It took seven years before Tampa could find a team to fill the void, using the promise of a new spring training stadium to lure the New York Yankees from Fort Lauderdale. The Yankees are baseball's biggest franchise everything they do is over the top, including their very impressive spring training stadium, which is also the summer home of the Florida State League's Tampa Yankees.

George M. Steinbrenner Field

Dubbed Legends Field when it opened in 1996, the stadium was renamed when the famed Yankees owner fell ill in 2008. After his passing in 2010, a bronze statue was added in front of the ballpark in time for the 2011 season.



There are a number of other notable features outside the stadium. First is the patch of grass that contains all of the Yankees retired numbers, a smaller version of Monument Park.



There is also a sculpture made from steel recovered from the World Trade Center, much like what sits in front the Mets' spring training home in Port St. Lucie, although in this case it is an actual reproduction of the Twin Towers.



The ticket windows are behind the staircase with reserved seats costing only $6 and general admission $4, the cheapest seats I have seen on this trip. There are other specials such as Facebook Friday, where those who have liked the team on Facebook get in for $2 and enjoy drink specials until 8 pm.



After going up the stairs you enter the stadium and will find yourself on a spacious concourse. There was only a single concession stand open with nothing special, although at least it was Thirsty Thursday when I was there so I was able to get a $2 beer; again only available until 8:00. Scooter Dogs are only $2, with chicken sandwiches and bratwursts the "specialty" items at $5.50.



There are banners here honouring a few Yankee greats like Ruth, Gehrig, and Berra decorating each walkway into the seating area, as well as pictures of past teams. The Yankees have won 27 World Championships, don't ya know. Well if you didn't, you will now.



The seating bowl is huge, with a capacity of 11,000, or double what is held at Dunedin. There is a concourse that bisects it, with rows below designated with double letters. Note the facade above the seats that evokes the original from the House That Ruth Built. There are several suites behind home plate; in fact, this ballpark was one of the first spring training stadiums to make use of suites.



The Tampa Tribune party deck is beyond the right field fence but this is reserved for groups for the most part and wasn't being used when I was there. With a crowd of about 1,000 spread out, the place is quiet during the game and each individual cheer can be heard by the players. The sun sets behind third bases, giving the field some interesting shadows before the game and during the early innings. The dimensions here are the same as at Old Yankee Stadium.



The mascot is Blue, an alien from the minor planet Pluto, a fitting choice for a minor league team.



What surprised me here given the size of the stadium is that the scoreboard is fairly basic, and there is no speed gun. I always expect the Yankees to spare no expense and it was a bit of a relief to see that there are some areas where they keep things simple.

Overall, Steinbrenner Field is what one would expect from the Yankees. It is oversized, honours their past and all those championships, and is likely a great place during the spring. Fortunately the Tampa team realizes the minors is a different attraction altogether and keeps their prices surprisingly low, making it a good place to check out a game when you are in town.

The Game

This was the fourth time I saw the Yankees on this trip and every time they have scored multiple runs in the first inning, this time courtesy of a 3-run homer from Kyle Roller (8th, 2010).  Eduardo Sosa led off the second with a a triple and scored on a sacrifice fly. Shortly thereafter, Ramon Flores doubled and came around on a J.R. Murphy (2nd, 2009 and the Yankees #9 prospect according to Baseball America) single as Tampa took a quick 5-0 lead. Slade Heathcott (29th overall in 2010 and #10 prospect, below) added a 2-run homer in the 5th to end all doubt.



Starter Caleb Cotham (who has a great name for a New York prospect, given one of the city's nicknames is Gotham) was the beneficiary of this offense, but made it easy on himself by tossing six scoreless innings, scattering 5 hits and striking out 8 without yielding a walk. A very impressive performance from Cotham (5th round in 2009), who was only making his fifth start at this level and bears watching.



The Manatees got a solo shot from Cody Hawn (6th, 2010, derisively referred to as "Goldie" by older fans) in the 7th but Mark Montgomery, who I mentioned in a previous post, retired the side on just nine pitches to end the game, a 7-1 victory for the Yankees.



They say that minor league relievers don't become major league relievers, but I'm betting that is not the case here; look for Montgomery (below) to be in the Yankees pen by 2014.



After a Yankees win, the familiar "New York, New York" refrain is played, just like at the big stadium in the Bronx.

Notes

I have no idea how they measure the game time anymore. This game started at 7:01 and ended at 9:14, yet was listed at 2:17 in the boxscore. I know it's only four minutes difference but in a sport that depends on accurate statistics, it troubles me greatly that there can be such a discrepancy. Can anyone explain?

Next Up

I'm driving to Daytona today to finish up the FSL portion of the road trip as the Blue Jays are visiting the Cubs. Saturday sees a long drive back to Atlanta, where I'm probably going to see the Nationals and Braves as I have a ticket and Stephen Strasburg is scheduled to start for Washington. Check back regularly for updates.

Best,

Sean

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Bradenton Marauders 5 at Dunedin Blue Jays 3 - June 27, 2012


Another camp day awaited me on Wednesday morning but first I had to make the three-hour drive from Fort Myers. The winds from Tropical Storm Debby had subsided and so the Sunshine Skyway was open and I arrived at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium ten minutes before the 11 am first pitch.

Florida Auto Exchange Stadium



For Blue Jay fans growing up in the 1980s, before the days of the internet and 24-hour sports news, Grant Field was always a mysterious place, whence the players suddenly appeared every spring. For those of us still in winter's throes in Ottawa, Dunedin seemed about a million miles away, a dot on a map in some place called Florida where snow was just a rumour.



Fast forward to 2012 and the world is a bit different. Spring training is big business and every player is analyzed from his draft day onward. There is no mystery for savvy fans any more. But Grant Field retains an aura from that bygone day, despite a renovation in 1990 and a recent naming rights agreement with a Dunedin car dealership.



Dunedin is a small town in the Tampa Bay area, just north of Clearwater. The stadium is located in the southwest corner of the community, on Douglas Road just north of Union. There are no nearby highways; you have to navigate the small surface streets to get there and it takes time from I-275. It really seems surreal as you approach: is this the place where the Bosettis, Barfields, Bells, and Bautistas played every March? Yes, it is.

Grant Field was built in 1930 and the current structure was constructed in 1990, although the field itself was not replaced. A couple of renovations have taken place since then but you wouldn't know it as the park is old and it shows. This is not a bad thing by any means, after visiting so many new stadiums on this trip, it is refreshing to see a ballpark that keeps things simple.



Parking is free and dangerous as foul balls regularly enter the lot behind home plate - there's even a sign that mentions you might win a prize if you car is dinged. You might want to park down the right field line if you are concerned about damage to your vehicle.



Tickets are $6 for general admission. The stadium is relatively small with a seating capacity of just 5,510 but crowds here rarely get over 1,000 as Dunedin is last in the league in attendance. The best place to sit is in the top few rows along the baselines which are protected by the sun by a roof, as you can see below. Note that there is netting along the top of the dugouts which ruins the view from the seats down low, giving you another reason to move up.



There is very little here to talk about as the Jays haven't bothered with anything beyond the ballpark; concessions are typical and acceptable. Wednesday is dollar day with dogs, chips, and sodas going for a buck.



There were a few banners with current Jays (above) and a tribute to Tom Cheek, longtime Blue Jays announcer, on the wall just inside the main gate. As well, there was a list of Dunedin players who had made the show.



About the only other thing worth noting is that the final words of the Canadian National Anthem were played on occasion during the game, for no apparent reason. Otherwise, this is the purest baseball spot in the Florida State League, with nary a distraction to take your attention away from the game.

The Game



The Bradenton Marauders were in town and MLB.com's #5 prospect and the second overall draft pick in 2010, Jameson Taillon, got the start for the visitors. A tall righty, the scouting report indicated a high ERA in early innings before settling down and he was true to form today.



Jake Marisnick (3rd round in 2009, above) homered to lead off the first for Dunedin and Jack Murphy (31st, 2009, not the stadium in San Diego) added a 2-run shot in the second. Taillon then settled down, giving up just a single and two walks in his next three frames before being replaced by Jason Townsend (31st, 2010).

Meanwhile, the Marauders manufactured four runs off Jays' starter Marcus Walden (9th, 2007) in the fourth. With Mel Rojas Jr. (3rd, 2010) on first, Alex Dickerson (3rd, 2011) lined to second. Rojas was dead to rights but the throw from Ryan Schimpf (5th, 2009) was wild and Rojas scooted to second. After a second out that should have ended the inning, Bradenton hit three consecutive singles, including two that were weak infield grounders. Two runs scored and then Junior Sosa (no relation to Sammy) doubled home two more on a ball that Michael Crouse (16th, 2008) dove for, caught and then dropped as he hit the ground. Despite the error, all the runs were earned as Bradenton took a 4-3 lead.

They added another run in the sixth while Townsend completed three innings of relief, yielding a couple of harmless walks before Doug Salinas came on to pitch a perfect ninth for the save.



The Blue Jays were held hitless for the final 6 innings and struck out 12 times in a game that went far too quickly. I would love to spend a season here sometime, it is just a great place for Toronto baseball fans.

Notes

I was happy to have to chance to see Taillon, whose stats so far are nothing special and who wasn't overly impressive, although his fastball did hit 96. Giving up runs early is not an tendency I would want in my star pitcher and it will be interesting to see how he improves as he works his way up the ladder.

As I tour these minor league ballparks, I notice players with better stats who aren't on any top prospect lists. I defer to those with baseball knowledge but wonder why results are not as important as technique, size, etc when scouting. This is essentially the Moneyball premise. For a more relevant example, compare the college stats of UCLA teammates Trevor Bauer, drafted 3rd overall by Arizona in 2011, and Gerrit Cole, taken 1st by Pittsburgh the same year. Bauer is making his MLB debut tonight while Cole just got promoted to AA from Bradenton. I even saw Cole pitch back in 2010, and thought he needed to mature. Obviously it's still early days for these two, but the more minor league teams I see, the clearer it becomes that scouts give too much credit to attributes other than the actual results.



The Marauders shortstop was Gift Ngoepe who is trying to be the first South African to make the majors. He played at the 2009 WBC, hitting a pair of triples of one time major league Elmer Dessens. MiLB.com has a good article on his path to Bradenton.

Jim Dietrich, another Stadium Journey correspondent who is based in Tampa Bay, joined me for the last few innings and a post-game lunch at the Original Hooters in Clearwater. It is always good to meet fellow sports travellers and his Florida reviews on SJ have been very helpful on this trip. Thanks Jim!

Dunedin is named for Dùn Èideann, the Scottish Gaelic name for Edinburgh. There is even a Highland Games every year.

Next Up

I'm in Tampa and getting ready to head over to Steinbrenner Field where the Yankees are hosting the Manatees of Brevard County. Then tomorrow I'm returning to the east coast to visit the 12th and final FSL park with Dunedin visiting Daytona. Check back both days for updates.

Best,

Sean

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Tampa Yankees 6-6 at Fort Myers Miracle 7 (8)-5 - June 26, 2012


Tropical Storm Debby disrupted the Florida State League schedule when it moved across the west part of the state over the weekend, causing rainouts at a number of stadiums. The upshot for me was that the Fort Myers game that was scheduled for 7:05 on Tuesday night had been changed to a doubleheader that would start two hours earlier. This meant a quick drive from Port St. Lucie was  after the St. Lucie Mets and Daytona Cubs went 12 long innings in the morning game. Traffic was clear for the most part, and I arrived at Hammond Stadium just in time for first pitch.

Hammond Stadium



Opened in 1991, Hammond Stadium immediately became the spring home of the Minnesota Twins as well as the summer domicile of the Fort Myers Miracle. The ballpark is located in the Lee County Sports Complex, a collection of ball diamonds that lies about 2 miles west of I-75, just south of Daniels Parkway, and is Named for William H. Hammond, Jr., who was pivotal in getting the complex built.



Hammond Stadium's outer facade was created to be similar to Churchill Downs. It is a unique look among the ballparks in this league.



Unlike most FSL teams, the Miracle is not owned by the parent club, so they have to find other methods of generating revenue. Thus parking is not free, rather it is $3, with more than enough for the average minor league crowd. Note that each row of parking honours a Twins' great, such as Kirby Puckett and Bert Blyleven. After exiting your care, you might want to approach the stadium along Palm Walk, a pathway which is surrounded by tall palm trees and ends in a water fountain next to the box office.



Tickets are $8.50 for the box seats that lie below the inner concourse, while the general admission benches are $6.50. There is also a drink rail down the right field line that costs $8.50 and seemed quite popular, with a berm just below that was a good place for families to relax.



As you enter the stadium, you will notice a wall dedicated to a few scouts who have made their mark, not just with the Twins but across the game as a whole. Another unique touch that goes a long way to making Hammond quite different than the rest of the ballparks in the league.



Concessions were more varied than usual, with the signature item being a Carolina Dog, a hot dog lathered in pulled pork, baked beans, and coleslaw. It was 2-4-1 Tuesday on the day I went though, so I just got a couple of regular hot dogs instead, which were passable.




Above the concourse you can see a number of banners that show current Twins in their Miracle uniforms. Always cool to see these stars before they became famous.



The Twins are also honoured on the press box, with the retired numbers (below) and pennants pasted there.



As is the case in the FSL, there are few distractions, which is how I prefer it. Hammond Stadium is really an old-style park that relies on the hard work of the management to attract fans. In a league that suffers from being second fiddle to spring training, not to mention terrible summer weather, the Miracle stands out in their attempt to make the game an enjoyable attraction. The team has a number of interesting promotions, for example, the day after I visited was to be "AM in the PM", when fans were encouraged to show up in pyjamas or bathrobes and enjoy pancakes and waffles, despite the 7:00 pm start time. For ideas such as this, the Miracle have won the FSL promotions award four years running. No doubt fans are having a lot of fun here and if you are in Fort Myers, you should stop by and have some fun too.

The Games

Game 1 - Fort Myers 7, Tampa 6 (8)

I didn't bother keeping score here as I spent much of the time walking around the stadium taking pictures. The Yankees stormed to a 5-0 lead in their first two at-bats, but the Miracle tied it with a five-spot in the second, helped by 3 Tampa errors. The Yanks quickly regained the lead with a run in the 3rd and held that until Fort Myers tied it in the 6th. Neither team scored in the 7th and we were headed to extra innings for the second time that day (minor league doubleheaders are 7-inning games).



After Tampa failed to score in their half of the 8th, Miracle left fielder Daniel Rams (2nd round in 2007, above) led off with a single and moved to second on a hit batsmen. After a sacrifice bunt and intentional walk, Levi Michael (30th overall in 2011) singled home Rams and the Miracle had the comeback win in the opener.

Game 2 - Tampa 6, Fort Myers 5

Forty minutes later the second game got underway, with the teams wearing different uniforms. The Yankees were sporting a dark blue number that is very rare in the organization, who never wear anything other than road greys in the majors.



Again Tampa broke out early when Tyson Blaser (above) crushed a 1st-inning, bases-loaded triple that just missed being a grand slam. Ramon Flores added a wind-aided homer in the second but Fort Myers got that back in the 3rd on a Michael RBI single. The Yankees quickly responded in the 4th to regain the four-run lead, but again their defense fell apart, allowing the Miracle to tie the game in the 5th, with two Yankee errors contributing to two unearned runs as Fort Myers batted around.



After a scoreless 6th, it looked like I would be seeing my third extra inning game of the day, but in the top of the 7th, Flores hit another dinger that was helped by the wind (that's him above, looking sheepish as he is about to be congratulated). This run held as all-star Mark Montgomery (11th, 2011) struck out Lance Ray (8th, 2010) with the bases loaded to end the game.



A great evening with two excellent battles not decided until the last pitch. I was somewhat disappointed to not see a third game with bonus baseball as that is a rarity few can brag about, but at the same time it was a relief to get to my hotel as I had an early Wednesday drive to Dunedin for another camp day. More on that shortly.

Notes

The Miracle include Bill Murray and Jimmy Buffett among their minority owners.

Yankee fans should keep the closer, Mark Montgomery, on their radar. In just two seasons in the minors ( 62 IP) he has struck out 103 while walking 25, with an ERA of 1.73 and a WHIP of 1.06. Early days but those numbers have to be encouraging.

Best,

Sean