Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Bowie Baysox 1 at Richmond Flying Squirrels 6 (Eastern League) - May 25, 2015


The third and final stop on my whirlwind one-way drive from Orlando was Richmond, the capital of Virginia and home to the Flying Squirrels, San Francisco's AA affiliate. Richmond lies a mere 90 miles west of Norfolk, so I expected an easy morning drive but didn't realize that most of Washington was on the Virginia Shore for Memorial Day weekend and the traffic slowed me somewhat. By the time I pulled into the parking lot next to The Diamond ($3), there was only about half an hour until the 12:05 start.



The Diamond, which has happily avoided any corporate naming, is one of the minor's biggest stadiums, with seating capacity of 12,134, the most of any park below AAA. However, as you can see below, advertising tarps cover up the top rows of the upper deck, reducing capacity to 9,560 for minor league games. The Diamond is also used by VCU baseball, who must remove those tarps to comply with NCAA rules, although their actual attendance rarely exceeds 1,000.



The ballpark was the home of the Richmond Braves, who finally moved to Gwinnett in 2008 as the park is really not up to AAA standards. The Flying Squirrels moved from Connecticut in 2010 and renovated the stadium twice since then, including installing seats in the upper deck to replace the lower benches, but the stadium definitely looks its age in other spots as it is now 30 years old.



The gold benches in the upper deck are general admission and tickets on game day are $9, though you might find some freebies if you wait close to the ticket window.



Inside, the concourses are surprisingly tight for such a large ballpark, particularly on the second level. However, at the top of the stairs, the team honours many past players who are now World Champions with the Giants, including their Richmond debut and their MLB debut, a nice touch.




I sat along the top row behind the plate, a unique view for minor league ball, and one that few fans preferred to see. Great foul ball territory here, a nearby father snagged one barehanded to loud applause. As well, you are generally shaded here and a light breeze will keep you cool on hot days.



Late in the game I made my way downstairs for some pictures and was not accosted by an usher, though I believe they do check tickets for the really good seats throughout the game.



The Flying Squirrels do put on a good show during the game, with their free program (The Nutshell) and promotions during the inning breaks, as well as a collection of very strange mascots, including a pig that is paraded around the diamond during the middle of the 5th inning and who made SportsCenter a couple of years ago.

In the end, I have to say I really enjoyed my time here, but that is because I am an old curmudgeon. I want my space and a cheap ticket and The Diamond gives me both. For most fans however, there is no doubt that The Diamond needs to be replaced. A smaller, more cozy and central stadium is doubtless to arrive in Richmond in the next couple of years and I'll be there to take in a game.

The Game



With a 6-hour drive home afterwards, I was hoping for a quick one and was a bit worried when the pitching matchup was announced. Starting for the Squirrels was Kyle Crick (49th overall pick in 2011 and the Giants #1 prospect, above) who struggles with his control, while visiting Bowie (Baltimore's AA squad) sent Jarett Miller (21st round, 2011 by Atlanta) to the hill. Miller had just been called up from High A Frederick and was making his first AA start, so I expected a beatdown. It wasn't that bad, but the game was really never in doubt.



Crick retired the Baysox in order in the first and his offense scored a run on a walk, a ground-rule double by Mac Williamson (3rd round, 2012, #12 prospect) and an RBI single from Devin Harris (48th round, 2010). Crick continued to be sharp, facing the minimum through 3, and in the bottom half of that frame. Miller loaded the bases to face Ricky Oropesa (3rd round, 2011). A wild pitch plated a run, and then Oropesa unloaded with a deep homer to right, scoring Williamson and Harris to make it 5-0.



Crick lost his no-hltter and shutout when Glyn Davis (looking foolish above) homered in the fourth, but that was the only damage Crick suffered, going 6.1 innings, yielding just 3 hits (and 3 walks). Richmond added a run in the eighth to win 6-1.



The game took 2:38 with a PPM of 1.73. All three games on my trip had a PPM over 1.7; clearly the pace of play rule changes are really having a positive effect on the minor leagues at least and the games are much more enjoyable when played at such a pace.

Player to Watch

Richmond reliever Edwin Quirarte only pitched 1.2 innings, but struck out 2 without yielding a baserunner. Hey, it's tough to pick a player that is not in a top 30 prospect list somewhere, but I reckon that Quiarte will make the majors as a mop-up man in the next year or two.



Notes

I had visited The Diamond in 2001 during my season-long baseball trip, but once the Braves left, I needed to revisit it to complete my Eastern League parks, which I have now done. Out of the 14 minor leagues, I now have complete 3 (Florida State, California, and Eastern), which means I still have lots of roadtripping to do in the next few summers.



The grandson of Carl Yastrzemski, Mike, (14th round, 2013, Baltimore's #10 prospect, above) was the most notable name in the boxscore. He went 1/3 with a walk and I think you'll see him in the majors by 2017 at the latest.



A Bowie batter lost his bat and it got stuck in the netting. I expected that it would be removed, but the batboy was unable to do so and the game continued. Something you don't see every day.

Best,

Sean

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Potomac Nationals 3 at Myrtle Beach Pelicans 7 (Carolina League) - May 23, 2015


Summer's here, so it's time to make a dent in my remaining minor league parks. There are 160 affiliated teams in 14 leagues, and I've seen 84 of them, meaning there are still 76 to get to. I've also seen every full-season team in the greater New York area, so weekend trips are tough to schedule. It simply isn't worth the price of a return flight to add 2 or 3 parks to the count.

With Memorial Day weekend looming, I needed to figure out a way to get to a few parks without breaking the bank. Fortunately, Hertz had a one-way rental car special - pick up the car in Florida and drop it off in New York (or any other northeastern state) for only $8 a day plus tax. One-way flights to Orlando are quite cheap even at the last minute, and when I checked the minor league baseball schedule, I saw that I could see games in Myrtle Beach, Norfolk, and Richmond on the way home. So I did just that.

I flew to Orlando on Friday night after work, got the car just after 11 pm, and drove to Daytona Beach to stop for the night. The next day I continued on to Myrtle Beach, about 450 miles away. Memorial Day weekend traffic was not that bad and I arrived in plenty of time for the 6 pm start.

TicketReturn.Com Field



Let me start by saying that this is a great ballyard and deserves a much better name.  The official name is TicketReturn.com Field at Pelicans Ballpark, which leaves room for another corporate sponsor for the stadium portion. TRCFAPB is located about a mile from the beach, with the free parking lot easily accessible off Grissom Parkway (named for a former mayor of the city, not former Expo Marquis). From here, you walk to the right field gate, which is where the ticket window (above) is located, with will call slightly further along. You can continue to walk around to the front, but there isn't much there other than a big sign that indicated that I should have showed up on Thursday.



This is what the front of the ballpark looks like, with a large water tower just behind.



The savings on parking are lost when buying tickets, which are a couple of bucks more expensive than you would expect at this level. The cheapest is $9, which leaves you in the bleachers out in left field, which are known as the Thirst Inning Deck. Given that the sun is shining in your face for much of the game, the name seems appropriate, and few fans chose this option. You can see the bleachers behind the left field fence in the shot below, as well as the view from there in the second picture with a clearer look at the water tower.





If you are unable to secure some freebies by standing around waiting for someone to offer extras (I was fortunate to gain entry in this manner), just pony up the $9 and sit where you want. I liked the grandstand bleachers that are covered along each baseline (regularly $11) as the shade is quite handy during the hot South Carolina summers, and the sea breeze makes an evening game quite comfortable, though may want to bring a sweater or a blanket as temperatures can drop rapidly after sunset. Box seats are $13 if you want to sit close without worrying about being kicked out of your seat. Note that on Saturdays, local residents get $3 by showing their ID, so if you know someone in Myrtle Beach, ask them to buy you a ticket.



Food choices are varied, with the Waffle Chicken Bites a bargain at $6. They are chicken nuggets baked in waffle batter that come with a serving of processed maple syrup for dipping (the sugary type, not the real thing). You might expect 5-10 nuggets for that price, but I was served somewhere between 25-30 and spent most of the game snacking on them. Definitely worth trying if you haven't experienced this southern delicacy and have a good health plan.

The Pelicans became the affiliate of the Chicago Cubs and have immediately tried to capitalize on that connection. The Clark & Addison Grille is one example, and you can find a miniature Wrigley Field on the outer concourse behind third base, in what is known as Grissom Plaza.



The park has all the usual minor league features like game day lineups, a free program (InFlight Magazine) and a very detailed "Road to the Show" display. As you can see, they were previously affiliated with Texas.



The only blemish was the postgame drive north, which was interrupted by a Memorial Day weekend traffic block that forced me off the planned route and into some back streets. A very minor inconvenience as Google Maps quickly provided an alternate route, and not nearly enough to stop me from recommending that any ball fan see a game at TicketReturn.Com Field. It is really one of the minor's more enjoyable experiences.



The Game

Paul Blackburn (56th overall, 2012, 25th-ranked Cubs prospect, below) started for Myrtle Beach, facing Tyler Mapes (30th round, 2014) for Potomac, who are obviously Washington's affiliate.



The visitors opened the scoring in the second when Spencer Kieboom (5th, 2012, 19th-ranked Nats prospect) walked and Drew Ward (3rd, 2013, 8th-ranked prospect, below) doubled. Two sacrifice flies later and it was 2-0 Potomac.



Jemier Candelario (Cubs 13th-ranked prospect, below) led off the bottom half of the second with a line shot that just cleared the right field fence to cut the lead in half. Mapes was removed after 3 innings and replaced by Jake Johansen (2nd, 2013, 18th-ranked) who promptly gave up an identical homer to Candelario that tied the game. Those were Candelario's only two homers so far this season.



Johansen seemed rattled and the next five Pelican batters reached base (4 singles and a walk) and with two out, Pin-Chieh Chen (signed out of Taiwan) singled home the last two of those runners to make it 7-2. That was more than enough for Blackburn, who pitched six solid innings to earn the win, with the final being 7-3 after a late homer from Chris Bostick (44th, 2011).



The game took 2:29 with a PPM of 1.87, one of the fastest-paced games I've seen in a long time. When baseball is played like this, with perfect weather and decent food, it cannot be beat as a sporting event. Simply a great evening to start the trip.


Player to Watch



With all the prospect rankings littering the Internet, it is tough to find players that might surprise in the majors. For this feature, I am going to try to highlight a player who is not ranked in the top 30 organizational prospects, in other words, organizational filler. For Myrtle Beach, that would have to be Carlos Penalver (above), a light-hitting Venezuelan shortstop whose defense was spectacular. He made several great plays, with the highlight being a first inning diving stop that started a double play. His bat needs work but if he continues to improve, he could find a utility job in the bigs in the next few years.

Notes



StadiumJourney gave the ballpark very high grades when it ranked it a few years back and this is noted outside the gates, but without any credit. To be fair, they do mention StadiumJourney on their ballpark information page.

Best,

Sean

Monday, May 25, 2015

Rochester Red Wings 3 at Norfolk Tides 1 (International League) - May 24, 2015


The second stop on my Memorial Day weekend trip was in Norfolk, home of the AAA Tides, affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles. I drove 3.5 hours from Fayetteville, NC via 1-95 and US-58, arriving in time for the 1:05 start on Sunday afternoon.



The Tides play out of Harbor Park, located along the Elizabeth River just next to downtown Norfolk. Highway ramps are on the north side of the ballpark and it can be tricky to find the parking lot if you don't know exactly where to go, as even the street signs are a bit misleading. You need to get on Water Street, which is a small side street off Waterside (shouldn't those be reversed?); from there you go straight to the parking lot ($5). There is limited street parking on Waterside and surrounding streets, worth checking out if you are on a budget. If you are staying in Portsmouth across the river, ferries are available from North Landing at $1.75 each way.



The ballpark was opened in 1993 with the expansion Ottawa Lynx the visitors for that first game, won by Norfolk 2-0. Despite being just 22 years old, it seems to have been built in the previous era of  ballpark construction, i.e. pre-retro. There are only two ticket windows and when an indecisive fan mulls his options, the lines move slowly. Prices start at $13 and rise all the way to $14. No typo, the good seats are only an extra $1. There are no real cheap options, even the child/senior/military discount is only $2. You can also save $2 buying in advance, an option not available to road trippers who get shafted if the game is rained out.



As Norfolk is a port town, the ballpark is designed to evince a nautical image with light towers that
resemble the shipyard cranes you see in the distance. The main entrance leads to a staircase that takes
you to the concourse, another feature that made me think this park had been constructed in the 1950s.
There are nearly 9,000 lower deck seats and 2,800 upper deck seats, but my favourite place to watch
was the standing areas along the first base concourse, where you can rest your drink and scoreboard on a counter while taking in the action (view below). According to some local fans, these are new additions and I wish every ballpark would have them; I don't mind standing for an hour or two.



There is a full-service restaurant in the right field corner known known as "Hits at the Park" which offers a complete view of the playing field, though I did not check it out. You can see it in the photo below. I did have the usual hot dog and soft ice cream, which are reasonably priced for AAA ball. There is also a special hot dog stand called Hot Dog Nation, which offers specialty dogs including the Oriole Dog (Norfolk is Baltimore's affiliate) which comes with crab meat and mac 'n' cheese.



There are upper deck seats down the lines as you can see above, and these are good for those wanting to avoid the sun. There are two scoreboards in right field that show lineups, replays, and stats, including the pitch count, which is something you rarely see in the minors.



Overall, I found this ballpark to be a decent place for a game, but with nothing particularly memorable. After seeing over 200 baseball venues in all levels, it takes something unique to surprise me and Harbor Park just didn't have anything along those lines.

The Game



Rochester (Minnesota's affiliate) was visiting and recently demoted Tommy Milone (above) was on the hill for the visitors. Coming in, he had pitched 23.1 scoreless innings in AAA, and that streak continued, though with some help from his defense in the 2nd. Nolan Reimold (below) singled to open the frame and Cuban Dariel Alvarez followed with a single. Audry Perez (who had exactly 1 PA with St. Louis in both 2013 and 2014) then grounded into a double play and Michael Almanzar popped out to end the threat.



In the top half of the third, Jose Martinez (below) homered leading off, and when he added a sacrifice fly in the fourth, the Red Wings led 2-0.



A Danny Ortiz (4th round, 2008) homer in the 7th made it 3-0 for the visitors and that was more than enough for Milone, who sparkled on the afternoon. He entered the 9th angling for the shutout, but Christian Walker (4th round, 2012, Baltimore's 3rd-ranked prospect) mashed a one-out homer to end Milone's AAA scoreless streak at 31.2 innings. A.J. Achter came in to get the last two outs for the save as Rochester won 3-1 in a very quick game that lasted a mere 2:18.



Notes

Milone was called up to Minnesota a week later when Ricky Nolasco was injured and should remain in the Twins rotation for a while.

Best,

Sean


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Los Angeles Clippers 100 at Houston Rockets 113 (Western Conference Semifinal, Game 7) - May 17, 2015


When I planned the trip to Houston, I really didn't consider the NBA as an option. The Jays were playing every day and if the Rockets had a game, it would be an expensive playoff affair. When the second round schedule was released, Game 7 was scheduled for Sunday, with the time TBD. As the Jays had an afternoon game that day, I hoped for an evening tilt, though when the Rockets fell behind 3-1 to the Clippers, Game 7 looked like a longshot. Houston won Game 5 easily, but were down 19 points late in the third quarter of Game 6, causing most Rocket boosters to turn off their TVs in disgust. As you probably know, the Rockets mounted an unbelievable comeback, outscoring the Clippers 40-15 in the final frame to force Game 7 after all. I didn't expect tickets to be available at the box office, but I guess Houston fans had fallen asleep because when I checked a few minutes after Game 6 had finished, I found a pair in the upper deck for $89 each. Not cheap, but Game 7s are rare and worth the premium.



After Cleveland dumped Chicago in six games, we needed Memphis and Golden State to go to 7 for the Rockets game to be pushed to the evening, but the Grizzlies were awful in Game 6 and thus the Rockets and Clippers were set at 2:30 Houston time. After seeing the Jays lose three straight, it wasn't too difficult to skip the fourth.



As Sharpy and I walked to the arena, Corey Brewer (above in his work clothes) strolled by on his way to the game. Fans in their cars honked and shouted encouragement, and Brewer smiled and thanked everyone. He even said hi to us, and thanked us when we wished him good luck. The fans were classy, letting him enter the arena without any hassles for autographs. It amazed me that in this day and age, a pro player can walk along the street and not be excessively bothered, especially before such an important game. Impressed with the Houston fans all around.



Gates opened at 1:00 and we entered shortly thereafter, taking our time to tour the facility. I had visited here just two years ago, and not much had changed, but the atmosphere was electric. Red t-shirts sporting Clutch City were laid on every seat and those fans who were too proud to wear one were shamed on the jumbotron until they acquiesced. The mascot, Clutch, had dyed himself red (instead of grey) and was making as much noise as possible to get the crowd ready, including riding in on a motorcycle.



Our seats were in the third row from the top, the best you could hope for at $89. That scoreboard is just as impressive from up there and you do have to be careful to not watch it instead of the action on the floor.



After that Game 6 miracle, there was an air of certainty that the Rockets would complete the comeback from 3-1 down. Early jitters affected both teams as the first quarter finished with 15 combined turnovers, but Houston shot 58% including 3/7 from beyond the arc to take a 28-21 lead.



The second quarter was solid basketball, with only 3 total turnovers and better shooting, with the Rockets winning 28-25 to take a 10 point lead into the break. An early run by LA in the third narrowed the gap to 60-57 but the Rockets finished the quarter on a 25-11 run and the fourth period was mostly a formality, at least until the final couple of minutes when the Clippers got within 8 at 102-94 to send fans into a panic. Two James Harden (bearded below) FTs assuaged the crowd and when Trevor Ariza hit a 3 a few seconds later, the game was sealed.



The final was 113-100 but we didn't stay for the celebration, scurrying out while the confetti fell (a bit early, confetti should be limited to championships), as we had to get to Dallas that night for flights on Monday. A great way to end the trip, and no regrets about missing the Jays game, as they lost yet again.



Notes

The city of Houston had its best sports weekend in a long time. The Astros went 4-0, the Rockets completed an improbable comeback, the Cougars swept UConn in baseball and clinched the Southern Conference championship, and even the Dynamo won. That's a combined 10-0 record, something that Toronto fans can only dream of.

Best,

Sean


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

UConn Huskies 0 at Houston Cougars 1 (American Conference Baseball) - May 16, 2015


The college baseball season is nearly over and I had yet to see a full game this year. Fortunately, the Houston Cougars were home to the Connecticut Huskies this weekend and they had kindly scheduled an afternoon affair on Saturday to close out the regular season.



The University of Houston campus is just south of the city, and Cougar Field is right on the eastern edge. Parking is free off Cullen Boulevard, from where a short walk takes you to the park. Like all college ballparks, Cougar Field is simple, with no distractions. There are plaques commemorating some of the program’s retired numbers (including Doug Drabek) and All-Americans, but that is about it on the outside.



I am not sure how much tickets are because a kind lady was handing out freebies. If you do visit Cougar Field for an afternoon game, buy the general admission seats because you’ll want to be covered from the relentless sun and only the top few benches provide that protection.



Inside the stadium, you'll notice the red dirt surrounding the bases, and there are a couple of standing plaques commemorating College World Series trips but little else. There are a few food options, with water an outrageous $3.50. Sneak one in instead.



The Game

Taylor Cobb started for Houston and walked the first two batters, earning him the quickest hook I’ve ever seen. Aaron Garza (below), a senior, came in and induced a fly ball to right. The runner on second tagged and was thrown out by Zac Taylor, a great way to get out of the jam. Garza retired the next batter and what had initially appeared to be a long game turned out to be a fast-paced pitchers duel.



Jordan Tabakman (below) was the Husky starter and matched Garza in efficiency, throwing only 22 pitches through three innings. In the fourth, he gave up a single to Taylor, who took second when he saw it uncovered. Two singles by Josh Vidales and Jacob Campbell plated Taylor and the Cougars had the 1-0 lead.



Garza threw 5 solid innings and was replaced by Jared Robinson, who gave up two singles to the first two batters he faced before retiring 11 in a row, including Joe Deroche-Duffin on a called third strike (below) to end the game.



A really fun afternoon and the most enjoyable game of the weekend, given how terrible Toronto was playing. The 1-0 victory took only 2:13, very quick for an NCAA ballgame.

Notes

There were 11 hits in the game, all singles.

Houston is the 2015 American Conference champ as you can see in the scoreboard shot below. Sadly, the final score did not show up from the angle I was shooting, but rest assured I did stay to the end.



Best,

Sean