Sunday, April 30, 2017

Round Rock Express 1 at Memphis Redbirds 3 (5, PCL) - April 29, 2017


Memphis is more or less midway between Jackson and St. Louis, and was a perfect stopping point on the drive back. Even better, the Memphis Redbirds, the Cardinals AAA affiliate, was home with an evening game. They play out of AutoZone Park, which I had visited in 2001, just a year after it opened. It won Minor League Park of the Year in 2009 and is widely considered one of the best stadiums in all of baseball.



The location is unbeatable, right at the corner of Union Avenue and B.B. King Boulevard in downtown Memphis. Dozens of bars and restaurants are a short walk away (I watched the Senators miraculous comeback at Huey's) and music fans should visit Sun Studio, where Elvis Presley and many other stars first recorded.



Inside the main gate, which is open even before the gates to the ballpark are, there is a plaza with an art piece featuring a pitcher and catcher.



This plaza is where fans congregate before the ballpark opens. Entering here will leave you just behind home plate.



Capacity here is exactly 10,000 and this game was sold out. Fortunately, they sell standing room tickets and I picked one of those up for $9. Attendance was 10,090, so I assume they sold 90 standing room tickets. Still, with rain in the forecast, the stadium was perhaps only 2/3 full.



AutoZone Park was built to major-league standards, though without the outfield seats. It recently underwent a renovation in which capacity was reduced by 4,384, which makes it a bit more cozier.



There are views of downtown from all around the concourse, which is open to the field.



The overhang from the upper level provides shade, but also blocks part of the massive scoreboard, which sits above right field.



I was working this game, so did not have time to tour or take more pictures. With new AAA parks in Charlotte, Nashville, and El Paso among other locales, AutoZone Park seems a bit dated when compared to its newer counterparts. Still, with such a perfect location, any summer visit to Memphis would not be complete without a stop here.

The Game

Round Rock (affiliate of the Texas Rangers) were visiting with Clayton Blackburn (16th round in 2011 by San Francisco) taking the hill against Arturo Reyes (40th, 2013). Josh Wilson, who last appeared in the majors in 2015, opened the scoring for Round Rock with a long homer in the third. In the bottom half, Blackburn injured himself facing Breyvic Valera and was removed with the count 3-1. Brady Dragmire (17th, 2011, by Toronto) came in and walked Valera. Tommy Pham followed and hit a grounder to Ronald Guzman (Rangers #4 prospect) at first. Guzman threw wildly to second, and centerfielder Jared Hoying (10th, 2010) threw wild trying to nab Valera at third, allowing him to score and Pham to move to third. After another walk, Dragmire balked home Pham to give Memphis the lead. Patrick Wisdom (52nd overall pick in 2012) then got the Redbirds first hit, singling home the third unearned run of the inning.

That was also the final hit of the game as a thunderstorm arrived in the middle of the 5th. After a one-hour delay, it was announced that the game was completed. Reyes struck out 7 to earn his 3rd win of the season, while Dragmire was the hard-luck loser, giving up 2 unearned runs while yielding just one hit.

Notes

It was 90's night and Mr. Belding from "Saved by the Bell" was the promotional guest. Actor Dennis Haskins, a Tennessee native, is certainly milking all he can out of this role; that's him below throwing out the first pitch.



Next Up

Rain washed out the college game I had hoped to see at Southeast Missouri State on the final day of the trip. The game was actually played on Saturday, so there wasn't any reason to even go to the ballpark. After a couple of weeks in NYC, I'm heading back on the road to see the Jays in Atlanta and Milwaukee and to add a few more minor league parks to my total. As always, check back for recaps.

Best,

Sean

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Tennessee Smokies 7 at Mississippi Braves 8 (Southern League) - April 28, 2017


Last year, I visited Trustmark Park on a short trip to complete the stadiums of the Southern League. Unfortunately, a brief rainstorm soaked the field, and the game was postponed, forcing me to return this year to finally add the ballpark to my tally. The best time to do so was on this trip to St. Louis, with Jackson, MS just under 500 miles south. So on Friday, I rented a car and drove 7 hours along I-55, leaving the cold, wet weather behind and arriving at the stadium happy to see that it was 30C with no chance of rain.



Trustmark Park is actually located in Pearl, MS, a suburb of the state capital. Opened in 2005, it sits next to a large outlet mall just north of I-20. Parking here is free in one of two large lots, both of which are located off Braves Way. The north lot is next to the left field entrance (below), which is slightly less crowded.



Tickets start at just $6 for general admission here and all you need to buy as ushers don't check outside a couple of sections behind the plate. There are also standing tables around the concourse that were perfect for me to stretch out after the long drive. If you want a guaranteed spot, the field box seats down the lines are $9.



The exterior of the venue does not look like a typical ballpark, but inside is fairly standard. One thing I noted is the advertising poster stating "This Is Where The Journey Begins". Actually, the journey begins in Rookie League or A ball for most prospects. Shown below is Dansby Swanson, who is currently struggling with the Atlanta Braves after being listed as the #8 overall prospect before the season.



Inside, the concourse goes around the entire ballpark and is open to the field, so you can still see the game while buying your food. The suite level also provides covering for the standing tables, and the concessions if you want to avoid the elements for a few innings. There are 5,550 seats and room for another 3,000 standing or on the berm.



There are party areas in both outfield corners, each named for a sponsor. The Farm Bureau Grill shown below is a full-service restaurant that is open to the public if it is not being used by a group for that game. Other food options are pretty typical; there was one Mexican-themed concession that didn't seem to have any food on this evening.



The concourse is plenty wide enough, with sections denoted by advertising. Minor league teams have to rely on local businesses to support them, and any open space can be used to generate revenue. One of the more creative sponsorships was the Umpire Walk, where the Darth Vader theme plays as the umpires stroll to home plate. I do not recall the sponsor though, so perhaps not the most effective use of their money.



There is a bit of history on display, including past titles and retired numbers on the fencing on the suite level.



Of course, a Wall of Fame is also present, dedicated to those M-Braves that went to to major league glory.



The other necessity is the starting lineups and standings boards that are just behind home plate. Other amenities include a small kids' area, and a Plinko board where inveterate gamblers can their luck for $2 a shot, with the top prize seeming to be a M-Braves hat.



The scoreboard is in left field and includes a 16-by-21 videoboard that shows live action and replays, along with detailed player stats.



The netting does go down past the dugout here, so you will have to sit beyond the bases if you want an unobstructed view of the action.



Overall, Trustmark Park checks all the boxes for me. Cheap tickets, free parking, and standing areas with tables are all I need to enjoy myself. There is nothing particularly unusual about the venue, but when you can see AA ball for $6, you should be more than satisfied.

The Game

The Tennessee Smokies (Cubs) were in town to take on the Braves, who sent Kolby Allard to the mound. I saw Allard, the 14th overall pick in 2015 and Atlanta's #3 prospect (48th overall) last July in Bristol, and the fact that he has jumped two levels to AA in such a short time is a clear sign that he is on the fast track. Tennessee countered with Preston Morrison (8th round in 2015, Cubs #29 prospect) so I was excited to see two top prospects do battle.

Allard gave up a 2-run homer to David Bote (18th, 2012) in the first, but the Braves tied it up in the bottom half on a walk, two singles, and a sac fly. Both pitchers were solid for the next couple of frames, but Mississippi broke it open in the 4th. Adam Brett Walker (3rd, 2012 by Minnesota) led off with a homer, and after a hit batsman and two walks, Dylan Moore (7th, 2015 by Texas) cleared the bases with a double, ending Morrison's night. Allard lasted six frames, giving up 2 more runs, both unearned after Travis Demeritte (30th overall in 2013 by Texas, now Atlanta's #9 prospect) booted two grounders in the sixth inning. Punsters could have a field day (unlike Demeritte) with his name and errors, I am sure.



With both starters out, the game dragged the rest of the way, with neither bullpen able to impress. Armando Araiza drilled a homer for Mississippi in the 6th, but the Smokies replied with a pair in the 7th to get within one. Demeritte walked and scored on a Walker sac fly to restore the 2-run advantage but Tennessee got that back in the top of the 8th. In the 9th, still down a run and with a man on first, Ian Rice (29th, 2015) battled, fouling off 6 straight before finally flying out as Evan Phillips (17th, 2015) collected his first save of the season. The game took 3:06 and I was just thankful extra innings were avoided as I needed to get back to the hotel to rest.

Notes

There was a small classic car show before the game, with about a dozen or so vehicles being driven along the warning track while players warmed up.





I have now completed the Southern League and have 26 ballparks left to complete all 160 active minor league venues. Hoping that the weather remains my friend this summer.

Next  Up

I'm heading back north to Memphis to see the Redbirds take on the Round Rock Express this evening, and the trip will finish up with a college game at Southeast Missouri State on Sunday. Check back for recaps next week!

Best,

Sean

Friday, April 28, 2017

Toronto Blue Jays at St. Louis Cardinals - April 25, 27 (2), 2017


I've been to Busch Stadium on several occasions but never posted any details about it here. The last time was in 2013 when the Cardinals had a late-season game against the Nationals, but that was in the middle of my NFL trip, so I didn't have time to fully explore the venue. This time, with the Jays in town for a three-game set, I had ample opportunity to visit all corners of the stadium and offer a review here.



The third incarnation of Busch Stadium opened in 2006 and has seen a couple of World Series titles in that time, including in its first season. That makes 11 for the franchise, second most in major league baseball, and the years of these championships can be found in various places around the stadium. The Cardinals also have a rich history of stars, and there are a number of statues out front of the main entrance, including George Sisler, Lou Brock, Stan Musial, Ozzie Smith, and Red Schoendienst (below).



Just across the street is Ballpark Village, mostly a collection of bars, including Fox Sports Midwest Live, which is actually in the middle of the building and not a separate room of its own. Seems like a decent place to stop before or after the game. The Cardinals Hall of Fame and Museum is also here, though it costs $12 to enter and see all the history here. The lack of pictures will tell you that I did not bother to see more Cardinal success after the DH sweep.



On the east side of the stadium is a long walkway with past accomplishments inlaid and surrounded by bricks that fans purchased during the construction of the stadium. As most fans come from the west, this area is often missed, so make sure to tour the entire outside of the ballpark.



Because there is so much history on display in the museum, the inside of the park has little more than the retired numbers and World Series championship years, but there is a wall with posters of the program covers from each of those World Series on the 2nd floor in the left field corner.



The Cardinals draw very well, with all three games announcing attendance over 40,000. Of course, that is tickets sold, but they still do a good job packing the park. The concourses are generally wide enough, but there are a few slow spots even 30 minutes before the game. Gates open 90 minutes before first pitch on a weekday and two hours on weekends, so get there early if you want to tour.



Below are a few pictures from various areas of the ballpark, walking clockwise from the left field corner.



The main scoreboard rises above center field and below is the scoreboard patio, one of several social sections where fans who are not so interested in the game can chat with their friends and have a few beers. More and more parks are adding these areas, which makes me happy because it means that fans who before would be yakking it up in the seating bowl are now confined to an area well away from those who want to watch the game.



The batter's eye is a patch of grass just next to a section called Homer's Landing.



The view from Homer's Landing. Note the asymmetrical design on the upper deck.



The Field Box seats stretch beyond the bases to where the sections start to turn to face the infield.. All seats are padded in these sections and ushers are a bit more serious about checking tickets here.



As you come around to first base, you get your first shot of the view with the Arch in the background, one of the best scenes in sports.



Upper deck tickets here are great for this view alone, especially behind home plate.



Even lower down, the view is quite nice.



If you are worried about being rained on, the last few rows of the lower level are covered by the overhang from the next level up.



Tickers vary in price, and the secondary market was very cheap for the Jays games, but we used the First Pitch Promotion for a couple of games. This is where you show up to the stadium in the morning and pay $11.20 (KMOX 1120 sponsors this promotion) for a pair of tickets in a random location that are handed out to you 15 minutes before first pitch. You must enter the stadium immediately so you cannot resell the tickets. This is not ideal if you want to tour the entire venue, but if you don't mind getting to your seat just as the game is starting and enjoy the vagaries of the lottery system, it can be fun. Once we received tickets in the last row of 160 down past third base, the other time was in 448 near the top along third base. We did not sit in either section; for the first game we had bought $3 tickets in 355 and used those, for the second we moved around, ending up in 355 again as we had gotten to know the usher, who was quite informative about the city and team. This also allowed me to take another picture of the wonderful view, this time at dusk.



Overall, Busch Stadium is one of MLB's finer ballparks. It is easily accessible by the light rail system that also serves the airport, thus a car is not necessary here. There are healthy and affordable food options, though St. Louis most-loved (by me at least) delicacy, toasted ravioli, is not served for some odd reason. But what really makes this place special is the fans; they show up in droves for every game and each and everyone wears something red. They are also friendly and knowledgeable, taking pity on us Jays fans after their terrible start. Cardinals Nation is the term used to describe these fans and it includes Arkansas, western Tennessee and Kentucky, southern Illinois, and parts of Indiana, Iowa and Oklahoma, along with most of Missouri. This wide range stems from the fact that the Cardinals were the furthest team to the west and south until the Dodgers and Giants moved to California, and that fan base has remained strong. Having all of their minor league franchises in the area helps build loyalty as well. If you haven't been, you should go this year, and make sure you wear red to fit in.

The Games

The Blue Jays came in at 5-14 and pretty much out of playoff contention in April. Injuries and a lack of depth have doomed them, and I feared a sweep, but St. Louis was also struggling at 9-10. In the first game, Toronto took a lead on three occasions, only to have St. Louis tie it up each time. The highlight was the diving slide by Chris Coghlan that gave the Jays a 3-2 advantage in the 7th. That lead was extended when Kevin Pillar scored on an error, but shortly thereafter Jose Martinez hit his first major-league homer, a two-run shot off Joe Biagini, spoiling the win for Marco Estrada. Jose Bautista singled home Pillar in the 9th to make it 5-4, but Roberto Osuna could not hold the lead, giving up a 2-out single to Dexter Fowler that sent the game to extras. In the 11th, pitcher Marcus Stroman pinch hit and doubled, the first extra-base pinch hit for a pitcher since 1971 and the first ever pinch hit by a Blue Jays pitcher. With two out Steve Pearce grounded to short and it looked like the rally would fizzle, but Aledmys Diaz threw wild and Stroman scored. It was the fourth error on the night for St. Louis, and they could not dig themselves out of yet another hole as Ryan Tepera got Martinez to fly out with the tying run on second to seal the win for the Jays.



After a rainout on Wednesday, we had a split doubleheader on Thursday. Mat Latos started for Toronto in the afternoon game and was great, going six shutout innings as the Jays built a 4-0 lead. But the bullpen gave up a run in the 7th and another in the 8th, and Osuna came in for the save in the 9th. With one on and two out, Randal Grichuk hit a deep fly ball that cleared the fence and tied the game. A disastrous display by the bullpen as a whole, who needed to keep their innings down with another game that night, not to mention protect the win for Latos, who at least showed he might be a serviceable starter. Still, Grichuk's swing ended Toronto's season for all practical purposes. Two innings later, Matt Carpenter hit a grand slam as St. Louis completed the comeback 8-4.

The final game featured AAA starter Casey Lawrence taking on Adam Wainwright. Lawrence should not be wearing a major league uniform, and he gave up three runs in the first and then singletons in the next three frames. Kendrys Morales hit a 3-run shot to make it respectable, but the Cardinals bullpen did not allow another run as the Cardinals won both halves of the DH. Just an ugly day all around for the Blue Jays, but at least they captured that opener.

Notes

J.P. Howell's ERA went from 54.00 to 81.00 on the Carpenter homer.

The Jays struggled mightily out of the gate last year too, but managed to eke out some wins to stay close until their bats got hot. With Donaldson, Sanchez, and Happ all out this year, those wins are much, much more difficult. It is going to be a long summer in Toronto, and I will get to see much of it on the road, with visits to Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Chicago still to come. Here's hoping they can at least play some entertaining ball the rest of the way.

Best,

Sean

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Nashville Predators 4 at St. Louis Blues 3 (Second Round, Game 1) - April 26, 2017


When the NHL announced the schedule for the second-round of the playoffs, I saw that the Blues would open their series with Nashville while I happened to be in St. Louis for the Blue Jays series. The only problem was that the game was on Wednesday evening, the same time the Jays would be taking on the Cardinals in the second game of their set. There is no way I would miss a Blue Jays road game for an NHL playoff matchup of two teams I don't particularly follow, so I hoped for a rainout on Wednesday and a baseball doubleheader on Thursday. And wouldn't you know it, that is exactly what happened!



The forecast for the St. Louis area was for heavy rain from the afternoon on, and the baseball game was postponed around noon. That gave me plenty of time to secure tickets for the hockey game on the secondary market, which was quite cheap for some reason. I picked up a pair (my buddy Duncan is joining me on this trip) for $67 near the faceoff circle in the end the Predators would shoot twice, with the view below.



We took the LRT there and entered just after gates opened. Each seat had a rally towel on it, but some were reversed to spell LGB. I thought this was a nice way to support the LGBT movement, until I realized it stands for Let's Go Blues.



The rally towels were shaped like Blues jerseys, which was kind of cute.



As Duncan had yet to visit the venue, we took a tour. I mentioned the 1958 NBA Championship trophy won by the St. Louis Hawks in my last post about the arena, and am adding a picture here. Quite a bit different from the current trophy.



Not much else to write about here as I covered it in my previous visit. I will say that the atmosphere was quite good and the Blues fans made a lot of noise, chanting "Let's Go Blues" throughout the game. Which turned out to be a very good one.

The Game

The Predators came in having swept Chicago, well the Blues took out Minnesota in 5, so both teams were well rested. The first period was played at a furious pace, with Nashville getting the only marker when Colin Wilson tipped home a P.K. Subban (below) point shot on the power play.



Early in the second, Nashville's Kevin Fiala was taken into the boards by Robert Bortuzzo and fell awkwardly. It was immediately clear he was seriously injured and he was stretchered off after a long delay as the Blues fans gave a standing ovation. It was announced the next day he had broken his leg and would be out for the playoffs. The game was further delayed because they could not play without an ambulance, so we had to wait until another one had arrived at the arena.



Nashville did not let the injury get to them and took a 2-0 lead on a Subban slapper, before the Blues got one back when Colton Parayko skated in on Pekka Rinne (above) and eventually slid one through the five hold. The Predators got that back quickly when another Subban shot hit goalie Jake Allen and bounced off Filip Forsberg's skate into the net.

Down 3-1 entering the third, the Blues came out strong and potted two goals within three minutes near the midway point of the period, with Vladimir Sobotka's tying marker sending the fans into ecstasy. But it wasn't to last. With just over 5 minutes to go, Vernon Fiddler chipped a puck under a diving Allen and the Predators held on for the 4-3 win. An excellent start to what should be an excellent series.

Notes

The doubleheader scheduled for Thursday was a split requiring separate admissions for each game. This was about the only thing that went wrong with the scenario as a single-admission DH is the perfect way to spend an afternoon and still have the evening free.

Best,

Sean

Monday, April 24, 2017

Jacksonville Armada 1 at New York Cosmos 1 (NASL) - April 22, 2017


As I've detailed previously, the NASL is no longer the sole second-tier league in the US soccer pyramid, with the USL having joined them. To make matters worse, several NASL teams have moved to the USL, which now has 30 clubs compared to just 8 in the NASL. One of those teams that has remained is the New York Cosmos, who have won three championships in their four-year history. The Cosmos, named after the original NASL team that featured Pelé back in the late 1970s, played on Long Island for their first three seasons, but have now moved to MCU Park, next to Coney Island, for this year. MCU Park is also home to the NY-Penn League's Brooklyn Cyclones, so like NYCFC, the Cosmos are playing soccer in a baseball stadium.



In order to add this venue to my count (now at 719), I headed out to Coney Island on a wet Saturday evening to see the Cosmos hosting the Jacksonville Armada. The parachute jump was lit up for the occasion.



I got a ticket out front from someone with an extra and made my way to the first base side, where an awning protects you from the rain. I stood here for most of the game.



The view is below. As you might expect, a soccer field does not fit very well in a baseball stadium and so there are no seats that are close to midfield.



The Cosmos were purchased by Mediacom owner Rocco Commisso, and I happened to be standing near him before the game. Several fans stopped by to thank him for saving the team, which was in danger of folding. I hope the team does well in their new home, and there was an announced crowd of 3,600 which isn't bad, considering the Red Bulls USL team drew about 700 when I went.



Jacksonville came in with two 1-0 victories and a 0-0 draw in their first 3 matches, while New York had 1 win and 2 losses to their name. The Cosmos ended the Armada shutout streak in the 22nd minute when former La Liga player Javi Marquez slotted home from the top of the 6-yard box. The Armada tied things in the 76th minute when J.C. Banks, a first-round pick by Toronto FC back in 2011 (he never signed with the team), scored a beauty from just inside the penalty area. That was it for goals as the teams each grabbed a point in the 1-1 draw.



Notes

Having seen Orlando City B at NY Red Bulls II the week previous, and then Orlando City at NYCFC on the Sunday following this game, I completed the Florida trifecta, seeing a different visiting team from that state in each of the pro leagues.

It will be interesting to see if the two leagues eventually merge, or possibly even adopt a promotion/relegation scenario with one league calling itself the third tier. The MLS will never allow for relegation, but at a lower level, it would be quite interesting.

Next Up

The Jays are off to a bad start,  but I'm hoping for things to turn around next week as I continue my Toronto on the Road quest. This week, they visit St. Louis, another underachieving team, for a three-game set. I'll also revisit Jackson, Mississippi to complete the Southern League after a rainout last year, along with a return to Memphis for some PCL action. Check back for updates as I begin the summer sports travel season!

Best,

Sean