Sunday, July 31, 2022

Portland Timbers 4 at Minnesota United 4 (MLS) - July 30, 2022

The Stadium Journey meetup was held on Saturday with two games in St. Paul. The first of these was an afternoon tilt featuring Minnesota United hosting the Portland Timbers at Allianz Field. The game was broadcast nationally on ABC, so the 2:00 start time was perfect for the baseball nightcap at the St. Paul Saints.

The Twin Cities have an excellent light rail system and it took me about 20 minutes to get from downtown St. Paul to the stadium stop on the Green Line. From there, it is a very short walk to the large field in front of the stadium, where there were plenty of games and sponsor tents to keep fans entertained.

The venue opened in 2019, two years after the club joined MLS. Inside, the seats are in the team colours of gray, black and sky blue, with a loon decorating the supporters' section at the far end. The team is nicknamed The Loons, which is also the state bird of Minnesota; the logo has 11 tail feathers, one for each player on the field. 

At the near end of the venue is the Brew Hall, a massive bar with dozens of taps. I don't drink at soccer games so I did not bother to enter here, but it was still hopping well after the game ended. 

On either side are murals that have several symbols of the area and the team. I have to say that the bird in the upper right corner certainly resembles a Blue Jay.

The single concourse on the east side is filled with concession stands, but prices were quite high and again, with soccer games just two hours, there is no need to eat. I had no trouble moving around before the game, but did not leave my seat at halftime to check things out.

There are two levels of seating on the east side of the stadium, with the lower deck in the sun for most of the game. I was ten rows up in the upper deck and the sun slowly crept towards us as the game progressed but did not reach us, stopping a couple of rows below. In each corner are standing areas that were quite busy and offered a different angle.

Across the way you can see what appears to be two rows of suites above the single seating level. The top row here is below a bird perch and many of the seats are covered in poop; I'm not sure how this is not a problem as capacity is 19,400 and attendance was over 19,700.

It was Pride Game and the supporters' section had brought coloured ribbons to celebrate. It was quite the sight before the game.

There was a display of the club's initials before the game. It is obvious why Sporting Kansas City did not choose the United moniker.

A look back at the east side after the game had ended. It is interesting how the upper level is much steeper than that below.

I didn't spend much time touring as this was a meetup, but I was impressed with what I did see. These new soccer-specific MLS stadiums are really quite nice, though I am not yet willing to travel to see them all, because generally the soccer isn't that compelling. Though in this case, the game was certainly entertaining.

The Game

The Timbers are the defending Western Conference champions but their 7-6-11 record was only good for 7th, the last playoff spot. The hosts were 10-9-4 and a solid 4th. But it was the visitors who came out running, taking the opening kick and quickly moving down the field where Argentine striker Sebastian Blanco chipped over Canadian keeper Dayne St. Clair just 14 seconds in (below). It was the 5th-fastest goal in MLS history and a sign of things to come.

Minnesota was not fazed by the early setback and Franco Frangapane (another Argentine) tied things up in the 9th minute off a corner, then Bongokuhle Hlongwane (South Africa) gave them the lead in the 21st when a rebound off a Frangapane back heel that hit the post fell to him. Just four minutes before halftime, Frangapane assisted on a beautiful solo effort (if that makes any sense) that saw Luis Amarilla (Paraguay) scoot down the left side, cross into the box, and beat Aljaz Ivacic (Slovenia). I guess they relaxed at the break, as just four minutes into the second half, Blanco added his second, and then the Timbers tied it just four minutes later when Jaroslaw Niezgoda (Poland) headed in off a free kick. It took 12 more minutes before an own goal off the foot of Kemar Lawrence (Jamaica) gave Portland the shocking lead. Four minutes later, and the game was tied at 4 after Amarilla completed a three-way heading play. Then the game got very chippy, with six yellow cards (there were nine in total) over the final 20 minutes, and unfortunately, no more goals despite eight minutes of stoppage time.

There's the final on the manual scoreboard above Brew Hall. The highlights are worth watching if just for the variety of goals scored. Again, an entertaining game but not one that will appeal to purists.

Notes

I have seen MLS games in 10 out of the 28 stadiums, and seen other sports in eight venues. I am happy to add these to my list when traveling for other sports, but as I have been to every city that has a team, I am not going to fly there just for soccer.

I saw AAA games at St. Paul last year, so not going to post about the ballgame, other than to say it started similarly with the visiting team scoring early, only to see the home team come back with three straight. But then St. Paul added on four more to win 7-1, so both games totalled 8 goals. 

Best,

Sean

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Milwaukee Milkmen 4 at Lincoln Saltdogs 1 (American Association) - July 27, 2022

The Stadium Journey meetup is being held in St. Paul this year and I used the opportunity to propose a lengthy family trip to the Plains. Flights to Omaha were much cheaper as were rental cars there, so I used that as a starting point and planned to see the four American Association stadiums in the area as part of my quest to see all MLB Partner League venues in independent baseball. The first of these was in Lincoln, the capital of Nebraska and home of the Saltdogs. The nickname, incidentally, comes from the fact that Lincoln was founded on a salt flat.

The team plays out of Haymarket Park, which is located in the Haymarket district about a mile from the University of Nebraska campus. The ballpark is also the home of the Cornhuskers and is surrounded by other collegiate venues, including Bowlin Stadium (softball, not bowlin'), Pinnacle Bank Arena (basketball, so I will be back) and Memorial Stadium (football) on the other side of the highway, clearly visible beyond center field in the photo below. Parking at Haymarket is free in the lot in front of the stadium, which is a short drive from the highway.  

Tickets start at $10 and that is all you need to pay if you don't care much about where you sit. The stadium has two full levels and although the Saltdogs draw well, averaging about 3,000 this season (capacity is 4,500 plus 4,000 can use the berms), you should not have a problem finding a seat.

I actually prefer the upper level as there is more space and I like the view of the action from there, as well as majestic Memorial Stadium in the distance.

The stadium has a plaza area inside the main gate, where you can pick up your food and drink, at various concessions. Craft beer options include one from Zipline, a local brewer that has a taproom in downtown Omaha and is highly recommended. 

There is also an interior concourse that has a few more options. Banners along the poles honour both the Saltdogs (2009 champions) and the Cornhuskers (3 appearances in the College World Series).

You can walk out to center field and take a picture of the entire stadium, with trees in the foreground.

Along the way, make sure to stop and read about Buck Beltzer, who captained the football and baseball teams back in 1909. The Cornhuskers used to play at Buck Beltzer Stadium on campus before moving to Haymarket in 2002, a year after it opened. A small playground can be found nearby, while a few games can be found in the left field corner for older kids.

The berms are popular areas and good for foul ball enthusiasts. Generally speaking, college baseball venues are mostly functional and not that family friendly, but Haymarket Park has done a good job in catering to the Saltdog crowd, which skews younger than the typical college ball fan. 

One such example is the mascot, Homer the Haymarket Hound, who was out and about for much of the game.

The ballpark opened in 2001 and it has been named best field in its league every single season since then. That's pretty impressive given that the venue hosts more than just baseball games, with concerts regularly scheduled as well.

Overall, I was impressed with how well Haymarket Park can host two different teams without sacrificing any part of its identity. I don't know if I will ever be back for Cornhusker baseball, but I would be interested in discovering how different the experience actually is.

The Game

The Milwaukee Milkmen were the visitors and started Ben Holmes, who spent seven seasons in the minors after an outstanding career at Oregon State; it was his first league start after three relief appearances. He was opposed by Kyle Kinman, an Omaha native in his fourth campaign for Lincoln, who sported their American flag uniforms. That's Jason Rogers batting below in only his second game with the club, more on him later.

Logan Trowbridge opened the scoring with a line drive homer to lead off the top of the third, and Milwaukee added another on a walk and two singles. Both teams scored once in the sixth, with Lincoln's run coming on a Rogers sacrifice fly, but the Milkmen extended their lead in the 7th when Bryan Torres tripled home Christ (no typo) Conley. And that was it for the scoring.

Holmes pitched five very efficient innings, tossing just 50 pitches and yielding three hits to get the victory as Milwaukee won 4-1 in a game that took just 2:39. I was quite happy with the pace of the game as I had to drive back to Omaha immediately afterwards. The only delay was Lincoln manager Brett Jodie getting ejected in the 6th for arguing balls and strikes. 

Notes

Rogers was the only former major leaguer to appear; he enjoyed 117 games with Milwaukee (ironically) and Pittsburgh. He also played with Hanshin in Japan in 2017 and coincidentally I was wearing my Hanshin jersey, though sitting too far away to get his attention.

Best,

Sean


Friday, July 22, 2022

Gastonia Honey Hunters 2 at York Revolution 6 (Atlantic League) - July 21, 2022

If you read the previous post, you will know that Lancaster and York are two Pennsylvania cities that are home to Atlantic League clubs. In addition, they are the names of the houses that fought in the Wars of the Roses in medieval England and the connection is maintained here, with Lancaster known as the Red Rose City, while York is the White Rose City (this is because supporters of the houses chose roses of those colours). As part of my quest to see all MLB Partner League ballparks, I visited Lancaster on Wednesday evening, and ventured over to York for a Thursday morning camp day contest.


The York Revolution play out of PeoplesBank Park, which is very similar to Clipper Magazine Stadium in Lancaster. No surprise to find out that the architects are the same (Tetra Tech), as the general stadium design is nearly identical, especially when viewed from the main entrance. The stadium is located in downtown York, right next to Codorus Creek. Parking is $5 in a lot on the other side of the creek, though you could probably find something on the street if you looked around, at least for evening games.


Brooks Robinson began his pro career here in 1955 and the area in front of the stadium is known as Brooks Robinson Plaza. There is a statue of him signing autographs for two children; if you look closely you can see White Roses on his uniform. The York White Roses were a minor league team that played here on and off between 1894-1969, and yes, Lancaster had the Red Roses. The two teams continue the tradition to this day, playing the War of the Roses, with the winner of the season series awarded the Community Cup.


Tickets start at $11 for lawn seats; you can save a couple of bucks if you buy in advance or if you are a senior like myself. Once inside, you will notice that the layout is very similar to that in Lancaster, but there are still differences. For example, in front of the press box is the Mothers Suite, an outdoor area that is reserved for a group and comes with food and beverage. It is visible to the right in the photo above.


The concourse is mostly covered by the second level and this provided enough shade for the day game as the sun was directly overhead for the most part. There are drink rails along the concourse that were ideal for keeping cool and having room to yourself.


I particularly liked the old style lineups and standings, though I guess the intern that has to change these before every game has a different opinion.


The ballpark fits into a very small footprint, so the left field foul pole is just 300 feet away. The wall in front of it is 37 ft., 8 inches high, 6 inches taller than the Green Monster, making it the tallest wall in professional baseball. It is known as the Arch Nemesis as just beyond is Arch Street. There is also a manually operated scoreboard in the wall itself.


In fact, as you make your way around the back of the wall, you can see the scoreboard operator and all the numbers she needs to do her job. This was pretty cool.


Just past here is where you can get a good shot of the entire stadium structure. Compare it to the similar picture from Lancaster and you can see how the two parks are nearly identical from an architectural point of view.


Looking back across center field to the lawn, the video board, and one of the group areas in the right field corner. 


York has a lot of history from the Revolutionary War period (hence their name) and there is a cannon manned by Cannonball Charlie, a mascot in full period clothing. The cannon is shot off before the Revs come to bat, when they hit a home run, and when they win a game. It is quite loud, so be prepared!


Continuing around past some concessions, you will pass by a gaming area that included air hockey and Skee Ball. I guess this was closed to campers to keep things sane, but I did see a few adults playing cornhole or something.


There is a large playground area with a carousel and just above that are three pennants representing the titles the Revolution has enjoyed over the years. 


Those first two titles were managed by Andy Etchebarren, whose number #8 is retired along with the #35 of Corey Thurman, who pitched here for eight seasons. Those numbers are visible on the first base facade below the upper level, while Brooks and Jackie can be found on the third base side.


The mascot is DownTown, a colourful creature of some sort, who was mostly invisible during the early part of the game. This is not unexpected as the inside of a mascot suit is unpleasant enough on a normal day, but when the temperature is 95F and there are thousands of screaming kids harassing you, a strategy of staying cool is essential. DownTown did appear for the final few innings, dancing on the dugout and coming into the stands to sign autographs, and was very popular as you can see below.


In all of these smaller stadiums, there are local organizations who set up tables to try to raise awareness of their cause, giving up free stuff like stress balls and key chains. Not being a local, I tend to pass right by, but one stand caught my eye. This would be Ryan the Bug Man, who has a large collection of insects and butterflies in display cases, and teaches kids to appreciate these creepy crawlies. I suppose the first step is to stop calling them creepy crawlies! The most intriguing part of his display was a live tarantula, and I was surprised that kids were more than willing to hold it. 


Later in the game, I got to do my own entomological research as a damselfly landed on a seat in front of me and remained there for several minutes. Best I can tell, this is an azure bluet.


As this was a morning game and I had to drive afterward, I did not enjoy any of the concessions on offer, but there was plenty that was tempting as usual.  


Overall, PeoplesBank Park is just as enjoyable to visit as its main rival in Lancaster. I would recommend visiting the two on the same trip, on back-to-back days if possible, so you can get an idea of how similar they are in some respects and yet how different in others. The two cities also have a lot of history worth exploring, so if you are looking for a short road trip, South Central Pennsylvania has it all. And Hershey Chocolate Park (an amusement park, not a ballpark!) is not far away either.

The Game

Gastonia won the first half West Division title and were a perfect 13-0 in the second half, while York was 4-9. But it was the Revolution who got on the board first, as Telvin Nash blasted a 2-run homer in the bottom of the first off Honey Hunter starter Reilly Hovis, who was a Blue Jays farmhand for 12 games with New Hampshire last year. Another run was plated in the second, and after Elmer Reyes doubled home Yefri Perez in the fourth, Carlos Franco hit his 26th homer, second most in the league, to make it 6-0 Revs. The cannon fired again as Franco (scoring below) rounded the bases, but Hovis remained in the game, finishing six innings with no more damage.


Meanwhile, Revolution righty Nick Travieso was on point, keeping Gastonia hunting for a run until the 7th, when he was removed after giving up a couple of solid singles. Revs reliever Nick Howard unleashed a wild pitch that brought home the Honey Hunters first run, and they added another in the 8th on a sacrifice fly, but that was as close as they got as York handed Gastonia their first defeat of the second half.


One advantage of the manual scoreboard is that the score remains after the game, so I can take a picture. 

Notes

The Atlantic League must have a relaxed uniform policy as York's Connor Lien played without sleeves.


Next Up

The Stadium Journey meetup takes place next weekend in St. Paul for the Saints, and I will use that as an opportunity to see four games in the American Association, starting with Lincoln on Wednesday and then going to Fargo, Sioux Falls, and Sioux City. Check back for recaps in a couple of weeks. 

Best,

Sean

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Charleston Dirty Birds 10 at Lancaster Barnstormers 7 (Atlantic League) - July 20, 2022

When the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball moves into Hagerstown next year, it will result in five geographically proximate pairs of teams, making for relatively easy road trip planning. Two squads (Long Island and Staten Island) are in the New York area; the others are High Point/Gastonia (skipped the latter this year), Lexington/Charleston (seen both as minor league venues), Hagerstown/Southern Maryland (will visit next season), and Lancaster/York. English history buffs will know that Lancaster and York were the two houses that contested the Wars of the Roses, but in the parlance of modern day baseball, these are two Pennsylvania cities that host Atlantic League clubs. The two towns are less than 30 miles apart on US 30, so I looked for a day/night doubleheader that would allow me to get both ballparks in a single day. I found one on July 21 with York at 11 and Lancaster at 6:30, but it was difficult to get out to York for that early start. So I decided to make an overnight trip, and stop in Lancaster for Wednesday's evening tilt before heading to York the next morning. Rather than rent a car in New York, I took a train to Philadelphia and picked one a vehicle at the Amtrak station, saving plenty of time and money in the process.

From there, it was nearly two hours through rush hour traffic to Clipper Magazine Stadium, home of the Barnstormers. Located just northwest of downtown, there is plenty of free parking in the lot behind the stadium, with good signage to direct you there. Walk back around to get to the front of the ballpark, which is where you will find the box office. Gameday tickets start at $9 for seniors (55+) and that is all you need as the team draws just over half of the stadium's 6,000 capacity and there are drink rails on the concourse. You youngsters will have to pay an extra buck, but you can save a couple if you buy in advance. The naming rights, by the way, are owned by Clipper Magazine, a local coupon periodical that has nothing to do with a basketball team in Los Angeles.

Directly inside the main entrance is a large mosaic mural of former mayor Dick Scott, who was instrumental in getting the stadium built. There was a promotional booth directly in front of the mosaic, so a better picture was not possible.

A couple of other things to note here are the Fan Services office (on the right above), where you can pick up rosters and stats, and the electronic starting lineups. A few former big leaguers can be spotted below. Note that the picture above is from behind the press box, which is the only area of the concourse where you cannot see the field.

The stadium opened in 2005 and has a typical design, with an open concourse atop about 20 rows of green chairbacks. The seats in the far corners turn in, making foul balls tough to play down the lines.

As I wandered around, I was quite impressed by the setup. This could easily be a AA stadium and more and more I realize that the difference between minor league and independent league ballparks is much smaller than the difference in the quality of baseball.

In the right field corner are colourful tables and the Broken Bat craft beer bar, where you are encouraged to Drink Local. Naturally, I am not one to argue, and enjoyed a couple of pints during the game. You can also get freshly cooked hot dogs and burgers here, although there are many other equally tempting options, mostly local cuisine, scattered about the stadium.

The foul poles here are a shade of pink, though I could not determine why. The distance from the right field foul pole is exactly 300 feet, a foot shorter than what is found in Gateway, which I mocked just a few days earlier. 

But as you can see below, the fence is 17 feet high, so homers are a bit more difficult to achieve here. Beyond the fence is a large group area that was quite active before the game. It is not closed off, however, and I was able to walk through on my circuit around the outfield. 

Yes, unlike most of the parks I visited recently, you are able to saunter around the outfield concourse, which allows you to take a picture of the entire stadium structure. 

This is also where you can access the left field lawn, which was a good place to sit early on, as the sun sets behind here and the scoreboard protects you from the rays. It also provides some interesting shadows on the field. If you are looking to avoid the sun in your eyes in the early going, sit high on the third base side, or stand at the drink rails there along the concourse. The field faces northwest, so there is little shade on the first base side, as you can see below.


There is a large Kids Zone that includes a carousel and made me wish I had brought my daughter along. I thought this was unique until I visited York the following day. In fact, the two venues are quite alike, but I'll expound on that in the next post.

The Atlantic League has seen more players reach the majors and stay longer than the Frontier League and Lancaster has quite a few MLB alumni, including Phil Coke and Austin Bibens-Dirkx. There are posters for each of these graduates, with Connor Overton the most notable for me as he appeared in four games with Toronto last year after pitching for the Barnstormers in 2019.

If you look closely above, you can see how these posters double as ads. Independent clubs need every bit of revenue they can generate and the Barnstormers and their sponsors demonstrate several creative ways to get their message across without being overbearing. I found the below ad to be quite amusing, although Mercedes batted .301 in 2021 and is hitting .284 so far this season.

You will also notice several sets of coloured seats; these are covered with sponsor logos; I would assume that these organizations own the season tickets for those seats. It looks pretty cool and isn't as annoying as I would have expected.

The ballpark has won many awards, most recently the best 2022 MLB Partner League Ballpark from Ballpark Digest, it's third straight year with a title. I personally prefer Truist Point but would not disagree with anyone who puts this one first. Interestingly, the runner up was Haymarket Park in Lincoln, Nebraska, and I will be there next week.

Overall, Clipper Magazine Stadium was a delight to visit and I would like to return with my daughter sometime. These communities really don't care if their teams are affiliated or not, they just want affordable entertainment in the summer, and independent leagues provide just that. Yes, if you are a baseball purist and you actually watch the game, you will notice things are a little less crisp at times, but the games still take about 3 hours. Well this one did anyway.

The Game

The Atlantic League plays a split schedule and both visitors Charleston (WV) and Lancaster finished a distant 4th in their respective divisions (won by Gastonia and Southern Maryland if you care). But the Barnstormers had started strongly in the second half, going 11-1, while the Dirty Birds continued to disappoint, going 4-9. Nile Ball (below), whose 3.01 ERA was good for second in the league, started for Lancaster against Stephen Chamblee.

The Dirty Birds got a dirty run in the first on a single, pickoff error, ground out, and single, but Lancaster got that back in the second when a two-out error by Alfredo Gonzalez allowed Trayvon Robinson to score from third. One inning later, Robinson walked with two outs and Anderson Feliz followed with a homer to right to make it 3-1. In the following frame, the aforementioned Mercedes showed no ill effects from his hand surgery, mashing a 3-run shot to blow things open.

But Ball could not hold the lead as Charleston scored three in the fifth, including a successful double steal with runners on first and third, one in the sixth, and another pair in the 7th on a Gonzalez dinger. Robinson homered in the bottom half to tie the game at 7, and the 8th saw Dirty Birds catcher Yovan Gonzalez ejected after arguing a bad strike 3 call. Gonzalez was  rather entertaining as he left the field, kicking dirt on the plate, much to the crowd's amusement. After former Cardinal Kevin Siegrist chucked a scoreless 8th for Charleston, extras loomed. Cole Aker came on for Lancaster and hit Scott Kelly, who promptly stole second. Two strikeouts were followed by a wild pitch, and then Alfredo Gonzalez doubled to right field to give the Dirty Birds the lead. A single scored Gonzalez and another double plated a third run in the inning. Oh-oh.

Siegrist was replaced by Isaac Sanchez, who made quick work of the Barnstormers, striking out Robinson to end the game. I wanted a picture of the big scoreboard, but within a second of the game ending, they switched the linescore off, so you can see the 10-7 final on the smaller board above. Runs were scored in all but the 8th, with both teams scoring in only the 7th. 

Notes

Shawon Dunston Jr. was the leadoff batter for Lancaster. I will always remember his father because he was the first overall draft pick in 1982, which is when I learned there was something called a draft. Dunston played until 2002, finishing his career with the Giants. His last hit was a home run in Game 6 of that season's World Series: a game that the Giants led 5-0 entering the 7th only to have their bullpen blow it. They lost the Series to Anaheim the following night.

Speaking of World Series home runs, Siegrist gave one up to David Ortiz in Game 1 of the 2013 Classic. The night before this game, Big Papi was seen by millions on the All-Star broadcast, while Siegrist, who disappeared after being suspended by Pittsburgh, continues to play in relative anonymity. I always love how two players can appear on the same stage for a brief moment and then end up so far apart just a few years later.

This was my 925th venue lifetime. I hope to reach 1,000 in 2024, after which I might just retire.

Best,

Sean