Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Northwest Arkansas Naturals 3 at Midland RockHounds 4 (Texas League) - April 18, 2016


When I lived in Vancouver in the early 1990s, I went to many Canadians games at beautiful Nat Bailey Stadium. In those days, they were the AAA affiliate of the White Sox (Sammy Sosa played there for a few games in 1991) and then the Angels, whose AA club was in Midland, Texas. Whenever a player got promoted or demoted, we'd hear that mysterious Texas town mentioned yet again. As this was before the Internet, we had to use a paper map to look it up, and found it to be in the western part of the state, about midway between Fort Worth and El Paso and possibly the most remote minor league location. Back then, I could only dream of making the trip to rural Texas, but now that I am on a mission to visit all minor league ballparks, I finally got to see what Midland is all about.



The Midland Rockhounds of the AA Texas League play out of Security Bank Ballpark, which opened in 2002 to replace Christensen Stadium, the long-time home of the team. The new ballpark is part of the Scharbauer Sports Complex in the southwest corner of the city, surrounded by a business park and some new residences, but almost nothing in the way of bars and restaurants. There is also a 15,000-seat football stadium next door which hosts two high school football teams and the Midland/Odessa Sockers of the PDL.



Parking is free in the large lot, and tickets range from $9 for reserved seats, which are the best bet as the park is quite small. Moreover, the protective netting extends all the way along the top of the dugouts, so only the reserved seats have a clear view of the field. On Mondays, you can get a reserved ticket for $2 if you bring a 7/11 cup.



There are a number of features here that are worth a quick look. Out front is a statue of a catcher, with plaques behind him denoting the team's successes. Most notably, they are the back-to-back Texas League champions.



Of course, make note of the Josh Donaldson picture on the team store doors next to the main entrance. Midland is Oakland's affiliate and Donaldson played here in 2009. There is another Toronto connections: Joe Carter stopped in for a visit in 1981-82 as a Cub farmhand, and he is honoured by a small banner along the concourse, as are other past stars such as Lee Smith and Bruce Sutter.



For evening games from Monday-Wednesday, gates open only 30 minutes before first pitch, which was very frustrating as I need more time to complete the tour, particularly since I am doing the review for Stadium Journey. I had to rush around taking pictures and notes and didn't even have time to fill out my scorecard. As you can see below, there is a single seating bowl with blue seats, while the suite level is up top, a very typical design. You can see the netting in the shot below.



One interesting feature is that the bullpens are actually out on the field, making a homer to right relatively easy at 322 feet.



The design is quite different down the left field line, where the visiting bullpen lies.



There are a number of concession stands but the offerings are pretty basic, though inexpensive. Try the chicken tenders, $5 for three, not bad. The strangest item was the peanut butter and jelly bacon hot dog, which is not as bad as it sounds and gets you all four food groups for only $5.



Despite perfect spring weather and two teams filled with prospects, few fans showed up for this one. Those that were in attendance didn't seem to care much about the game, and neither did the mascots. With the dugout now protected, they stood on top and blocked my view during the action, tossing frisbees to the crowd among other antics. I had to move to get a clear view, not a big deal in an empty park, but rather annoying to fans who actually want to watch the game.

Overall, Security Bank Ballpark is a pretty typical minor league venue in its design. The boring neighbourhood and inattentive fans should not dissuade you from making a visit however, because the other aspects are actually pretty good. Minor league baseball is still the best value out there, and although there are some franchises that are sacrificing fan friendliness in the name of the almighty dollar, this is one that is not. So next time you are in Texas in the summer, see if the Rockhounds are home and get yourself to West Texas for a game.

The Game

Northwest Arkansas (Kansas City) was visiting with top prospect Raul Mondesi Jr. (whose father Raul played for Toronto). The younger Mondesi actually had an at-bat in the 2015 World Series at age 20, and he was very gracious in signing for the young lady next to me.



Another top prospect is Bubba Starling, drafted 5th overall in 2011 and given a record $7.5 million signing bonus, enough money to stop him from becoming the Nebraska QB. Starling has struggled however, and is looking like the next Drew Henson. He's only 23, but his early .152 average and a seeming inability to hit breaking pitches do not bode well.



Alec Mills (22nd round, 2012) started for the Naturals, while Midland countered with Chris Jensen (6th round, 2011 by Colorado, below). Both pitchers lasted six innings, yielding three runs apiece. In the bottom of the 7th, the Rockhounds had runners on second and third with two out and Jaycob Brugman (17th, 2013, Oakland's 21st-ranked prospect) at bat. He laced one to center that Starling appeared to catch, and the umpire ruled Brugman out. The Naturals left the field and I updated my scorecard, only to look up and see the umpires conferring. Uh-oh. Turns out the ball was trapped, so the call was reversed, sending Naturals manager Vance Wilson into conniptions and an ejection. One run scored and that turned out to be the winner as Midland won 4-3. The radio broadcast indicated that the correct call was made, so I'll have to believe them, but that was something I had never seen before.



There's the final below, unfortunately the linescore was removed immediately after the last out was recorded. The game took just 2:27, very quick even at this level.



Notes

I attended the following game on Tuesday morning, when gates opened much earlier to allow kids in, and enjoyed a more thorough walk around. I noticed that the grounds crew has a pet dog that follows them around before the game.



I also noticed that many foul balls land in the parking lot. I saw one foul ball end up underneath a truck, and when I left the game (after 6 innings as I had to get to El Paso), it was still there, so I scooped it up. According to my buddy Andrew, that counts, so I now have a Texas League ball.

Best,

Sean

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