Monday, May 29, 2017

Carolina League Mini-Trip


There are six levels in the affiliated minor leagues: AAA, AA, A-Advanced (High A), A (Low A), Short-Season A, and Rookie. That last level includes the Arizona, Gulf Coast, and Dominican Summer Leagues, but those clubs are not marketed to local fans and thus not part of the 160 franchises that make up affiliated minor league baseball. For the first four levels, each MLB team has exactly one club per level, while 22 teams have short-season clubs in the New York-Penn or Northwest Leagues and 18 have franchises in the Appalachian or Pioneer Leagues. The Blue Jays are one of ten teams with affiliates at both levels (Vancouver and Bluefield).

Usually when a franchise moves, it does so within its league. For example, the Brevard County Manatees are now the Florida Fire Frogs, having moved from Melbourne to Kissimmee while remaining in the Florida State League. But it is possible for teams to move across leagues at the same level. It is obviously important to have an even number of teams in each league, so the only way this could happen was if two teams left one league and moved to another. Given the geographic concentration of the lower level circuits, such a situation is rare, but it did happen this past offseason. Two teams that had struggled in the High A California League jumped all the way over to the Carolina League. Well, that is not quite true. The High Desert Mavericks and Bakersfield Blaze ceased operations in the California League, while the Down East Wood Ducks (who play in Kinston) and Buies Creek Astros were created as expansion teams in the Carolina League, also a High-A federation. The main difference between a straight move and the contraction/expansion method is that franchise records do not transfer over to the new teams; they are starting from scratch in terms of history.

Regardless of the type of move, the result is two minor league stadiums that I have yet to visit are now active. Neither ballpark is new: the Wood Ducks play out of Grainger Stadium which opened in 1949 and hosted the Kinston Indians from 1986-2011, while the Astros use Jim Perry Stadium, also home to the Campbell University baseball team. Still, if I want to complete all active minor league parks this year, these two have to be added to the list. Fortunately, they are only about 80 miles apart, so I am able to do both over a short trip in early June, as follows:
Sun, Jun 4 Myrtle Beach Pelicans at Buies Creek Astros 16:00
Mon, Jun 5 Wilmington Blue Rocks at Down East Wood Ducks 19:00
Tue, Jun 6 Myrtle Beach Pelicans at Buies Creek Astros 19:00
I've added the extra date in case of a rainout. The Astros are only playing here for two seasons before moving into a new stadium in Fayetteville, but unlike Club 122, the active minor league ballpark quest will end once it is completed.

I'll be posting updates here, be sure not to miss the thrilling story of how the Wood Ducks got their name.

Best,

Sean

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Toronto Blue Jays at Milwaukee Brewers - May 23-24, 2017


The final stop on this trip was Milwaukee to see the Jays take on the Brewers in a 2-game set. I discussed Miller Park way back in 2010, when I drove here as part of a two-city DH. This time, my buddy Duncan was with me and we decided to forgo a rental car. The original plan was to take public transit to the ballpark, with the Brewers Line providing rides from downtown for $1.75 if you have an M•CARD. But after a visit to Lakefront Brewery to enjoy their fantastic tour, we stopped at Who's On Third to enjoy the free drink you get after completing the tour. This is one of several establishments that offer a free shuttle to Brewers games (well, you have to buy something, but you can bring your drink on the shuttle) so Duncan and I decided to use that option instead.



The shuttle dropped us off right in front of the main entrance behind home plate. There are a number of statues around here, but it was raining, so I didn't take any pictures, figuring I could do that on Wednesday.



For the first game, we got tickets in the upper deck for $5, a bargain. As it was raining, the roof was closed, which gives this ballpark a cavernous feel.



Before the game, I moved over to the farthest seat above left field, which is in section 442. The Brewers ask that fans sit only in their ticketed seat, but I was not bothered while I sat here for the first inning.



The view from the seat is below. You are really, really far away.



The Blue Jays took a 4-0 lead in that game, with Kendry Morales crushing a ball to deep center. Joe Biagini allowed only 1 hit through 4 innings but couldn't finish the 5th to be in line for the win. Fortunately, the bullpen was solid, with Danny Barnes, Mark Tepera, Joe Smith, and Roberto Osuna combining to shut out the Brewers for the final 4 innings as Toronto won a tense one, 4-3.



For the Wednesday afternoon game, we tried to take the Brewers Line, which purportedly runs every half-hour. We waited 40 minutes at one stop and no Brewers Line bus appeared, so we returned to Who's On Third to take the shuttle yet again. It dropped us off just 10 minutes before first pitch, so we had no time to tour the park, heading straight to our seats, which were in row 15 behind the plate.



The Jays mashed four homers in this one, including a grand slam by Ryan Goins, as they won easily 8-4. Keon Broxton, my player to watch back in 2010, hit a homer for Milwaukee.

It was a great ending to the trip, with the Jays sweeping and taking 3 of 4 games that I saw over the past week, making them 31-31 in my road games. The next trip to see them will be in August when they visit Wrigley Field.

Notes

The Milwaukee Bucks are building a new arena right next to the Bradley Center. You can take a picture from the top floor of the Hyatt Regency which includes all 3 downtown venues: UWM Panther Arena, Bradley Center, and the tentatively named Wisconsin Entertainment and Sports Center, still under construction.



Next Up

I've got a couple of short trips next. First a 3-day jaunt to the Raleigh area to see the two new Carolina League franchises in Kinston and Buies Creek, and the following week in Montreal for the F1 race. As usual, I'll post updates here, so check back early and often.

Best,

Sean

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Wisconsin Timber Rattlers 2 at Beloit Snappers 12 (Midwest League) - May 22, 2017


The final minor league game on the trip was in Beloit, a small town about an hour southwest of Milwaukee and home of the Snappers of the Midwest League. My buddy Duncan had flown in for the two games between the Brewers and Blue Jays and drove down to join me for this one as well. After a brief stop at Lucy's #7 Burger Bar (highly recommended), we headed over to Pohlman Field to see the Snappers take on their state rivals, the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers.



After visiting a number of new stadiums on this trip, it was nice to see an older venue, with this one having opened in 1982. It's true.



The park is very old school with a small central seating section that has five rows of plastic chairs and six rows of benches above; the entire area is protected by netting. Down the lines are bleachers and picnic areas, which is where you go if you want to get a foul ball. Beloit is averaging just 419 so far this year (due in part to the cold weather), making it one of the better places to get a ball. It is interesting to note that if you leave the park to chase a foul ball, you will not be allowed to re-enter, but if you leave for any other reason, you will be allowed back in.



When we arrived, the tarp was on the field due to a slight drizzle, which ended up delaying the game about an hour and a quarter.



During the break, I ran into some Timber Rattlers getting dinner from the concession stand. Those are two pitchers who did not appear in the game, so I guess having bad food is OK. Actually, I tried the Tater Tot Chicken Strips from this stand and they were pretty good. I also grabbed a discounted slice of pizza in the last inning, which was probably a mistake. They even added a free box of popcorn that I gave to Duncan.



We also ran into Snappy, who was kind enough to pose for a picture with Duncan.



There aren't many features here. The standings of course...



...pennants for playoff appearances...



...and a Road to the Show board that is in desperate need of repair.



Bullpens are quite a bit away from the fencing well down the lines; the picnic areas are here so maybe that's to dissuade fans from throwing food at the players.



If you sit in the last few rows directly behind the plate, you can hear both broadcasters clearly, which adds a bit to the experience.



The Snappers have a few promotions, but with so few kids on hand, they were mostly for adults. In one, interns dress up as mattresses and race around the warning track...



... while in another, two men don inflatable balls and try to knock each other senseless.



Overall, Pohlman Field is probably the worst ballpark I have seen in quite some time. So naturally I loved it. Fans and staff are very friendly, you can move around easily, and the views from down the lines are not bad at all. Next time you are in Milwaukee, check to see if the Snappers are home and make the trip to see an old-style minor league park.



The Game

Wisconsin (Milwaukee) sent Thomas Jankins (13th round, 2016, below) to the mound while Beloit (Oakland) responded with Xavier Altamirano (27th, 2015), who only lasted two innings before being replaced by Dakota Chalmers (3rd, 2015, A's #11 prospect).



With the game tied at 1 in the fifth, Beloit burst out with a six-spot, highlighted by a monster 3-run jack from Luis Barrera. Two innings later, they added five more on three walks, three singles, and three wild pitches. Wisconsin added an unearned run in the 9th to make the linescore very interesting.



The scoreboard operator made a mistake and gave Beloit a hit, but it was an error. So the final linescore was Wisconsin 2-2-2, Beloit 12-2-2. The game took 2:32, exactly twice the length of the rain delay, with attendance a robust 192.

Notes

Before we entered, we were offered a lawn sign saying "We Back the Badge". A unique giveaway but sadly I don't think these would fit in the overhead bins, so we had to politely decline.



Next Up

The Jays are in Milwaukee to finish the road trip that started last week in Atlanta, and I'll finish my trip that started last week in Kissimmee. Check back Friday for a recap.

Best,

Sean

Monday, May 22, 2017

Beloit Snappers 6 at Peoria Chiefs 7 (Midwest League) - May 21, 2017


On my 2001 road trip, I saw a game at Pete Vonachen Stadium in Peoria, a ballpark named for the longtime owner of the Chiefs. That was the stadium's last season as the team was ready to open a new downtown facility in 2002. At that time, I didn't think twice about it, but once I decided to visit all active minor league parks, I realized that I had to return to Peoria to add Dozer Stadium to my list.



I drove about 90 minutes using minor highways between my hotel in Mendota and Peoria, avoiding the Interstates as much as possible. It still amazes me how much of the country is still empty and you can drive miles without passing another car, even in northern Illinois. I arrived an hour before game time, surprised at the crowd out front. The ballpark is located at the corner of Oak and Jefferson, and there is free street parking around, though I'm glad I got there early to secure a spot three blocks away. Any later and I would have had to pay $5 to park in one of the lots.



Tickets are $11 for the seats between the bases, $10 for the other seats, and $7 for general admission. These are gameday prices, subtract a buck for the seats if you buy in advance and add a buck if there are fireworks after the game. Having saved on parking, I decided to splurge on this one and got a seat just four rows behind the plate. The picture below is from the last row in that section, but gives you an idea of the view.



The park has a few interesting features. Just inside the main entrance is a statue of Vonachen giving a baseball to a kid. He purchased the team in 1983 and made them and the ballpark a destination for everyone. An innovator in marketing, he is one of those that turned minor league baseball into the fan-friendly sport that it is today.



The name of the stadium reflects the fact that Caterpillar headquarters is in Peoria rather than the soporific nature of baseball. Originally dubbed O'Brien Field for a local car dealership, it became Chiefs Stadium in 2008, and then Cat bought the rights in 2013, choosing to use Dozer to represent their bulldozers, an unusual move. There's even an ancient tractor on the concourse to cement the partnership.



Most new minor league stadiums have a seating bowl that extends past the bases, an open concourse that allows views of the field, suites above, berms in the corners, picnic areas and party zones beyond the fences, and a kids playground somewhere. Dozer Park is no different, with all of those elements present. This is not a complaint by any means; this setup is successful for a reason - it gets a wide variety of fans out - attendance was 4,776 on this blustery afternoon.



The concourse is dotted with concessions stands; Burgertopia is my hearty recommendation. At $8 it is more expensive than anything else, but the burger is cooked fresh and is very tasty. There are four varieties too, should you visit the park more than once. There is also a small craft beer stand called Good Hops, with a couple of dozen different types of bottles, most costing $7. The Chiefs nickname was taken after a team that played here between 1953-57. It is not related to Native Americans (at least now), but refers to firefighting: the mascot is a Dalmatian, and the concession stands have names such as Five Alarm Grill and Engine House.



You can walk around to the outfield and take a picture of the entire seating bowl, but you cannot complete the circuit.



There are four retired numbers here: Wally Joyner, Mark Grace, Ryne Sandberg, and Greg Maddux. The Chiefs have primarily been Cardinals and Cubs affiliates, so I find it interesting that no Cards are here; Albert Pujols spent part of the 2000 season in Peoria before storming on the major league scene in 2001.



There is no Road to the Show display, which I found surprising. The stadium is also used by Bradley University and they have a list of major leaguers, but I saw nothing of the sort for the Chiefs.



The scoreboard is above right field, and quite nice for this level, with a sizeable video board above the line score.



Programs, starting lineups, and the rosters are available at guest services just next to the main entrance. If you want a t-shirt or softee ball, sit in section 108 or 109 as they toss them from the press box. I understand the value in a t-shirt, but a softee ball?



Overall, Dozer Park is another enjoyable venue to watch minor league baseball. I never get tired of attending these games; the fans and promotions are always fun, you can usually see a future major leaguer or two, and the games are played with a pace that is no longer possible in the majors.



The Game

Beloit (Oakland) was in town to take on the Chiefs, who sent Jordan Hicks (3rd round, 2015, now the #18 prospect for St. Louis, below) to the hill. Before the game, I read his scouting report on MLB.com, of which I quote a portion here:

Hicks came out with some good power stuff right out of the gate. His fastball typically sat in the low-90s but touched as high as 97-98 mph, though he didn't always maintain that velocity. He throws it with a lot of sink, resulting in a very good ground-ball rate. He can really spin a curveball, with a chance of it becoming a plus breaking pitch eventually. His changeup needs work, but it also has potential. He did struggle with command, but he also was successful against older competition at age 19.

This was exactly what happened and sitting directly behind the plate, I immediately realized his potential with his fastball touching 95 and a great curve. But his ball/strike ratio wasn't that good, although he only walked 2 and hit a batter, giving up four runs in 6 innings.



His mound opponent was Brendan Butler (30th, 2015, a Queens native) who also yielded four runs (three earned) in five frames. He was replaced by Jesus Zambrano who got two quick outs but then gave up a single, double, single, walk, and single as Peoria took a 7-4 lead, putting Hicks in line for the win. Beloit added a couple in the 8th to make it exciting, but Eric Carter (26th, 2016) finished the game with a three up, three down ninth, the first for the Peoria pitchers on the afternoon as the Chiefs held on for the 7-6 win. The player to watch was Peoria's Nick Plummer (23rd overall in 2015 and #23 prospect for St. Louis) who went 3-5 with two doubles.



The game took 2:43 but the PPM was a fantastic 1.81. To compare, Toronto's 7-5 loss to Baltimore the day before (a similar linescore) had a PPM of 1.53, 18% slower. It might not sound like much, but these long MLB games with their reviews and endless pitching changes are simply not fun to watch anymore.

Notes

I always enjoy when they announce random seat locations as prize winners. Most fans don't really pay attention to their actual section and row, so when the lady in front of me won $25 worth of dry cleaning, I had to tell her.

Next Up

I'm in Beloit tonight so I can see the Snappers take on the Timber Rattlers. Tomorrow is the first of two with the Blue Jays in Milwaukee. Just like last week, Joe Biagini will throw in the opener, while Marcus Stroman pitches game 2. Hoping the Jays can win them both!

Best,

Sean

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Schaumburg Boomers 3 at Joliet Slammers 6 (Frontier League) - May 20, 2017


When this trip was planned, I set aside three days to visit the two Midwest League stadiums in the Western Division that I have yet to see. Both Appleton and Peoria are relatively far away from the other six venues in the league that are still on my list, all of which are in the Eastern Division (in Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan). The schedule works very well for those six the week after the Jays visit Wrigley in August, with all at home and able to be visited without backtracking. Thus I needed to make sure I caught the two remaining Western ballparks on this trip to Milwaukee, so I added a buffer day to reduce the risk of a rainout ruining my plans. When the game in Appleton last night was completed, I had two days to see the game in Peoria.

Driving southwest from Appleton to Peoria, about a 5-hour jaunt, I encountered severe weather that had caused the Cubs afternoon game to be postponed. I wasn't sure if the Peoria game would be cancelled as well, and so I booked a hotel an hour outside of town to figure out options. Checking the radar, I realized that the rain had passed through the area and both Saturday and Sunday's game would be played. I decided to save Peoria for Sunday, which meant finding another game on Saturday. Fortunately, the Frontier League, an independent (unaffiliated with MLB) circuit has several teams in Illinois, and the Joliet Slammers had a game just an hour east of the hotel.



The Frontier League is celebrating its 25th anniversary this season, making it the longest continuously running independent league. Baseball at this level is difficult to operate at a profit, though a few franchises have been successful for decades, with the St. Paul Saints the most notable. There are currently eight summer leagues with 62 total teams, but franchise movement is constant and trying to keep up with all of the changes is a tiring exercise. As well, the quality of the game is not as good as the minors; most players are former minor leaguers and there are no prospects whatsoever. That doesn't mean these players have no shot, several have been signed by MLB clubs and worked their way up to the Show (David Peralta is a good example). Still, I've seen a few games at this level and found them to be less compelling than those in the minors.



The ballparks, on the other hand, can be surprisingly impressive, rivalling minor league venues in quality and amenities. I was also intrigued by the Slammers, whose nickname references not only baseball, but the old Joliet Correctional Center, which closed in 2002. Its most famous inmate was Jake Blues, frontman of a band known as the Blues Brothers.



The Slammers play out of Slammers Stadium, which was opened in 2002 and hosted another independent league team, the Jackhammers, until 2010. The ballpark was known as Silver Cross Field after a local hospital had bought naming rights, but the 15-year agreement expired after last season and the team is looking for a new sponsor. Thus the name on the stadium remains as before, a clear sign that this is independent ball, where budgets are much tighter and there is no point taking down the name without a new name to put up there.



The Slammers make good use of the prison motif, with a jailbird logo (above) and a team store called The Clink.



Tickets are $8 for general admission, $12 for reserved seats, and $14 for the first couple of rows, known as the club. Although the rain had ceased a couple of hours earlier, fans stayed away in droves and so a GA ticket was all that was needed. The ballpark is a typical configuration of Kelly green seats, with suites above and a very stylish press box above. There is a picnic area, kids zone, and beer garden, but with so few in attendance, it did not seem like these were operating. Only half the concession stands were open, all offering typical fare. If you do visit, stop by the Chicago St. Pub just a block away for a pregame snack.


Out in right field is a sculpture of steel workers (Joliet used to have the second largest steel mill in the country), while far behind the fence in left field is a fire station with a sign indicating that it is 560 feet away from home plate.



With a capacity of 6,016, the ballpark is similar to Class-A facilities in the minors, though slightly smaller as you can tell above. The Amtrak station is directly across a small street behind third base and trains are constantly running during the game, providing a nice distraction at times.



Joliet is just 45 minutes southwest of Chicago, so if you are looking to add a new ballpark to your list while in the Windy City, consider Slammers Stadium, which I hope will have a new name when you visit. SportsRoadTrips Stadium perhaps?

The Game



The game was routine, with Joliet winning 6-3. The only player worth noting is first baseman Rock Shoulders for three reasons. The first is obviously his name, which makes headline writers giddy. The second is that he hit a monster home run (the Slammers website headline was "Shoulders Muscles Slammers Over Boomers"). The third is that he was wearing the #343 jersey, which is presented by Firehouse Subs. Every game, a different player wears this jersey in remembrance of the 343 firefighters who lost their lives on September 11. Fans can bid on the single, game-worn jersey with proceeds going to the Firehouse Subs Safety Foundation. It is an interesting fundraising method, and if you happen to be in Joliet and see someone with this jersey, you'll know where they got it.



Notes

Shoulders was drafted in the 25th round by the Cubs in 2011, and was named MiLB's Moniker Madness champion in 2012. Shoulders spent 2 games with AAA Round Rock (seriously) in 2015 and his homer off Arnold Leon (who briefly saw time with Toronto last year) was the only run of the game in Nashville on May 9 of that year. Apparently that wasn't enough; a week later he was back in Class A where he batted .169 to earn his release. Independent ball is rife with stories like this, and part of the fun of going to games is researching some of these players.

Next Up

I'm heading to Peoria obviously, then Beloit on Monday before hitting Milwaukee on Tuesday and Wednesday for the Jays. Check back for recaps.

Best,

Sean