Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Debate over Expanded Netting

The New York Mets announced last week that they were going to be tripling the amount of protective netting around the field, quite possibly in an attempt to save the fans from the same injury fate their entire team seems to be having.  The Mets will more than exceed the Commissioner's updated netting guidelines.  They're certainly not the only team to have done this either - Pittsburgh, Washington, and Milwaukee are among other teams to go above and beyond what is required for netting.

There's been a lot of debate over the amount of netting and railings present at ballparks recently.  There's no denying that fan injuries, even fan deaths, at ballgames have been more prevalent in the news the last 5-10 years.  I think everybody remembers the fan fatality over a railing in Texas a few years ago, and there was also a fan who fell on his head at Wrigley Field this year and died a few days later.  While these incidents can't all be directly attributed to lack of safety features, it's enough that Major League Baseball should be taking notice.  The argument against expanding netting and railing is always "I can't see the game" or "people should be paying attention."  In my opinion one death or serious injury is one too many.  We can't obviously wrap the entire grandstand in a plastic bubble, but there are ways where a middle ground to be reached to protect the highest problem areas.  Anybody who has ever sat behind the dugout on the first level of any ballpark has undoubtedly seen a guy get smoked by a line drive foul ball.  The "exit velocity" stat metric that is all the rage now only brings more validity to this argument.  A projectile coming at you over 100mph, especially when you are not facing the action, is a pretty scary thought.  It is ridiculous to expect in today's low-attention span society, coupled with the nature of baseball as a sport with a lot of pauses, that one can stare at the field for all 9+ innings of a game.  There are plenty of players even on the field that do this professionally who are injured by batted or pitched balls.

There was a fan death in the NHL in 2002, and the league immediately responded by placing netting behind the goalie areas.  There were safety concerns from idiots jumping behind the goal posts in the 1970s to catch field goals, so the NFL added nets.  Baseball is a notoriously slow sport to enact any change, but it should not take this many injuries and God forbid any more deaths to come to a solution.  I think at a minimum extending the nets to the end of the dugouts is reasonable.  It was certainly an adjustment period in the NHL that fans still gripe about, but at the end of the day it does not affect attendance or fan enjoyment.  There is no evidence to suggest that less fans sit behind home plate at baseball games because of the netting.  The sooner that MLB fixes this problem, the sooner they can get back to other important things - like getting Montreal another team.

PS - Tour 2017 starts this weekend in Atlanta!  10th Anniversary of The Tour!

Brewers 38-35, +0.5 (3 @ Braves, 3 @ Reds)
Reds 30-40, -6.5 (3 @ Nationals, 1 @ Cardinals, 3 v. Brewers)

Twins 35-33, -1.5 (3 @ Indians, 4 @ Red Sox)

Erik - 4 (+15 worked)

Peter - 19

Monday, June 12, 2017

Herr-Baker Field

All photos of Herr-Baker Field available on Flickr.

With the rate at which the Northwoods League is expanding, both in terms of number of teams and geographic area, it's getting harder and harder for me to keep up with all of the new parks.  A relatively easy one I was able to cross off this past week was the new Fond du Lac team, which is a little more than an hour north of Milwaukee.  The Fond du Lac Dock Spiders are a mouthful of a team that shares a field with the D-III Marian University team in town.  It was a nice easy drive up I-41 until I got off the freeway and found that nearly every summer athletic team on campus was playing at the same time.  Marian University has several other fields and is also across the street from Moraine Park Technical College and UW-Fond du Lac, so it was confusing to know which field was which and where to park (somehow a city of 50,000 people has 3 colleges).  Once I wedged my Kia into a spot on the street I found that very few of the parked cars were actually for patrons of the Dock Spiders game, so I was able to get a walkup seat just in time for first pitch.

The ballpark itself is really not that old - I can't find a date anywhere online but I think I remember the program said 2010.  In its original form the park was a simple layout of 3 sections of seats with a stone press box and an inning tally-style scoreboard.  The owners of the Dock Spiders - who are actually the same ownership group as the nearby Timber Rattlers - put in $1.5 million in upgrades to prepare for the new team and meet the standard of fan comfort that has come to be expected in the Northwoods League.  Additional box seating down the lines, additional concessions, a team store, a party deck, and a picnic/family area in left field were all added in the offseason.  Other than matching the materials, the architects and the team did not really take any care in making the addition feel like part of the original park.  As I mentioned before, when it first opened, Herr-Baker Field had 3 sections of seats - some box seats directly behind home plate, and a small bleacher section on either side of that.  Beyond that are some on-grade dugouts, so any seats that were added would have to be up higher.  This results in a weird disconnection between the addition and the original park - it's not physically possible to walk from the old bleachers to the new seats without going back on the concourse first.  The new added sections are also real seats and not bleachers, so this means that bleacher seats here are actually closer to home plate than most of the seats.  I bought my usual cheap ticket and was pleasantly surprised to find myself in the 2nd row behind home plate for less money than a box seat.  It's a very odd juxtaposition, kind of like if you are downtown in a large city and see an old shorter building wedged between 2 newer tall buildings and you can tell it looks out of place. 

The strange layout certainly gives the park a lot of character.  Most parks I've been to in the circuit have at least one odd quirk about them and the seating is what makes Herr-Baker Field memorable.  The team store and picnic areas would rival any Midwestern League team.  The picnic area has benches as well as some giant yard games for kids and drunk adults alike.  The party deck is at the top of the highest seating section on the 3rd base line, so I liked how the people here can actually watch the game.  So often the party areas are just an afterthought in the corner of a field and you can never actually see the game.  The main concessions building is very beautifully done in a type of stonework you might see on any older campus.  It was dollar dog and beer night when I went, so I made a lot of trips to the concessions stand.  In total for the game, free street parking, 2 dogs, and 3 beers, I spent $13.

The Dock Spiders lost to the visiting Rockford Rivets in 10 innings.  The Rivets are yet another new team in the league - I went to see them in August last year in their inaugural season.  This was a moderately better pitched game than the disaster I saw in Kenosha the week before, but not by much.  I'm starting to wonder if 20 teams in the league now may be stretching the available collegiate pitching talent a little thin.  Ryan Connolly out of the powerhouse Iowa Western Community College went 3.2 innings for the Spiders, walking 5 and striking out 5.  There were 12 combined walks in the game.  By the time both starters were out it was tied at 3.  Rockford scored 2 in the top of the 7th and looked like they were poised to win the game.  But Fond du Lac put a man on 1st on a fielding error to start the 9th and Colin Braithwaite knocked him in with an RBI double to tie it up.  It was all for naught however, as the Rivets retook the lead in the 10th on a fielder's choice and shut the door in the bottom half for the win.

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 7
views from park – 2

view to field - 7 (new box seats are above dugout)
surrounding area – 2 (Marian University)
food variety - 5
nachos - 5
beer - 9 ($1 domestic, a few craft brews)

vendor price - 9
ticket price - 9
atmosphere - 5
walk to park – 3
parking price/proximity - 6 (free but hard to find a spot)
concourses - 4 (disjointed, no view of field)
team shop - 8

best food – combo ketchup/mustard/onion condiment
most unique stadium feature – seating arrangement
best jumbotron feature – n/a; only showed box score
best between-inning feature – visiting team member participates in human bowling

field dimensions – not listed
starters – Clay Moffit (RCK) v. Ryan Connolly (FDL)
opponent – Rockford Rivets
time of game – 3:25
attendance – 836
score – 6-5 L

Brewers score that day – 5-2 W

Brewers 33-31, +1.0 (4 @ Cardinals, 3 v. Padres, 4 v. Pirates)
Reds 29-33, -3.0 (3 @ Padres, 3 v. Dodgers, 3 @ Rays)

Twins 32-27, +1.5 (4 v. Mariners, 3 v. Indians, 3 v. White Sox)

Erik - 4 (+10 worked)

Peter - 18

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Opening Day in Kenosha 2017

All photos of Kingfish 2017 home opener available on Flickr.

The 24th season in Northwoods League history commenced this past week and I was of course in attendance at a home opener, back in Kenosha for the 3rd consecutive year.  We unfortunately didn't get to the park in time for the blanket giveaway, which would have come in handy as temps dipped into the upper 50s by the end of the game.  Nonetheless it was another solid Opening Day crowd at Simmons Field.

I've definitely been spoiled by all of the renovations at Warner Park over the years and come to expect big things out of Big Top Baseball.  I always hope to see something  different every year I'm in Kenosha, and this year they finally got a working jumbotron.  It may seem to be an insignificant contribution toward the fan experience, but it really helps to be able to keep track of what is happening in the game.  Knowing who the batter is and their stats will help engage even the most casual fan.  And, you know, functioning inning tallies is always a good thing.  In the concessions department, one new add this year is a beer that is being specially made for several Northwoods League parks in a partnership between a Kenosha brewery and a Rochester brewery.  It's called "Five Tool Ale" and it was honestly pretty disappointing; it tasted like Miller Lite.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I would think a limited edition craft beer could be a little higher quality.  On a sad note, PA guy Aaron Sims appears to no longer be with the team.  He was in the same role with the Mallards for a long time and was one of the reasons I grew to love this league, and also one of the main reasons I drive all the way down to Kenosha despite the Chinooks being much closer.  He really knew how to energize the fans and create a lighthearted fun atmosphere, which is what this league is all about.  I'll probably still go to Kingfish games in the future, but it's definitely a big blow to the team that won't go unnoticed.

Other than that, it's business as usual for the Kingfish, who are now in their 4th season of operation.  The home team held on for a 9-6 win in a very slow and very poorly pitched ballgame.  Both teams combined for an unfathomable 20 walks in the contest.  The visiting Bullfrogs struck first in the 2nd, but then the Kingfish came right back with 6 runs on 6 walks and 3 hits including a 3-run homerun by appropriately named Derek Bangert.  Starter Alex Stodola had 4 of those walks and was relieved in the middle of the inning and charged with all 6 of the runs in the 3rd.  On the other side, Davis Schwab fared a little better in the run department only giving up 2 runs (1 ER) but also walking 4 of his own.  Justin Hasek started the 6th and nearly blew the game for the Kingfish, giving up 4 runs on 4 walks and a hit and retiring only 1 batter, but in the end they managed to hang on for the win with an 3.2 innings of scoreless relief to end the game.

Brewers 30-28, -- (4 v. Giants, 3 v. Diamondbacks)
Reds 26-30, -3.0 (4 v. Cardinals, 3 @ Dodgers)

Twins 29-24, +1.0 (3 @ Mariners, 3 @ Giants)

Erik - 4 (+10 worked)

Peter - 17

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Come See What's Brewin'

(photo courtesy of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
A pretty cool local story came out last week that a few Brewers really got to live up to their team's namesake. On an off day last Monday, Eric Thames, Corey Knebel, and Oliver Drake partnered with MillerCoors and lent a hand to help create a custom signature beer to be sold at Miller Park later this year.  Thames is a self-described beer lover and has made it known that was part of the reason he chose to come to Milwaukee.  Knebel has dabbled in homebrewing during the offseason.  As for Oliver Drake - well, after the week he had, he probably just needed a beer.  Normally this type of story during a typical Brewers season in Milwaukee would make headline news of the Journal Sentinel sports page, but with how much the team has exceeded expectations thus far, it might have flown under the radar more than usual.
The type of beer the "brewers" created is being described as a "juicy IPA," and even me being the beer aficionado that I am had to look up with that was.  It's basically just a very floral and aromatic IPA.  Even if the team is out of first place by August when the limited-edition beer is expected to be ready, these players and the fans will have something excited to look forward to.  The Brewers have not only increased the quality level of play on the field this year, but also their beer offerings and promotional schedule, and this is just another of many cool events to look forward to at Miller Park.  As much as I enjoy a frosty High Life at a hot summer game, I've really enjoyed all of the more upscale local brews at the ballpark this year, and I can't wait to try this beer.

Brewers 27-24, +1.5 (4 @ Mets, 3 v. Dodgers)
Reds 24-26, -2.5 (3 @ Blue Jays, 3 v. Braves)

Twins 26-21, +1.0 (3 v. Astros, 4 @ Angels)

Erik - 4 (+8 worked)

Peter - 15

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Dubya Back to What He Does Best

There's definitely been a fair amount of George W. Bush nostalgia over these past 117 days or so, but by the looks of it, he doesn't plan on going back into politics anytime soon.  I can't say that I blame him; photobombing reporters is way better than having to talk to them.  Between taking in ballgames, blasting the Donald, and his illustrious painting career, I'd say he's pretty content with his retirement life.

Worth noting: Dubya gave up his stake in the Texas Rangers when he took office.

Brewers 23-18, +0.5 (3 @ Cubs, 2 v. Blue Jays, 4 v. Diamondbacks)
Reds 19-20, -3.0 (3 v. Rockies, 2 v. Indians, 2 @ Indians, 3 @ Phillies
Twins 19-16, +1.0 (3 v. Royals, 3 @ Orioles, 3 v. Rays

Erik - 4 (+6 worked)

Peter - 10

Monday, May 8, 2017

Eric Thames: God Arrives in Milwaukee

I'm not trying to be blasphemous.  To be clear, I don't worship Eric Thames, but a lot of people in Korea did.  He earned his deity status and non-secular nickname during a 3-year stretch for the NC Dinos that would be hard for me to even sustain in Super Nintendo.
  • 2014: .343/.422/.688, 37 HR, 121 RBI
  • 2015: .381/.497/.790, 47 HR, 140 RBI
  • 2016: .321/.427/.679, 40 HR, 120 RBI
That's a ridiculous 1.168 average OPS.  For frame of reference, the MLB league average is usually around .725-750 and .900 would be an all-star caliber player.  It was understandable when the Brewers signed Thames to a 3-year deal this offseason, that many experts assumed those numbers would not be sustainable in the major leagues, including the Brewers front office.  Partly because the KBO is considered about a AA-level talent, and partly because he wouldn't get to wear his gold-plated body armor anymore.  The team certainly took a big risk when they became the first franchise in MLB history to release a reigning homerun champion (Chris Carter) and put all of their faith in this relatively unproven product.  But I think the general thought was, even with half of the power production of Carter, that Thames would still be good for 20 HR or so with a better eye at the plate and an exponentially better glove in the field.  For the price they were paying him, it was worth it.

Needless to say, Eric's start to the season has been nothing short of miraculous and has blown skeptics away, and I think Eric himself would even admit he is surprised.  After a slow spring training spent figuring things out at this level again, Thames has hit to the tune of .324/.438/.731 with 12 HR and 22 RBI.  If you extrapolate that over the course of a season that's about a 1.170 OPS with 62 HR and 115 RBI, which is right on pace with his KBO numbers.  Thames was only 3 homers away from tying the record for most hit in the month of April.  Obviously, he is going to regress some - he did have a semi-human roadtrip recently with only one homerun.  But I think he has more than proven he can handle MLB pitching and has made David Stearns once again look like a wunderkind.  The Brewers may have found another diamond in the rough here, and it would sure be a relief to finally have a GM that has a knack for free agent signings.  After all, even with the rebuilds of the Astros, Cubs, and other teams, in the end it's the free agent signings that compliment the young core that put your team over the top.  It's up to the rest of the team to determine Thames' fate.  As of right now the team is generally overperforming their expectations, and if they keep that up, maybe Thames does not get traded for another crop of prospects.  Either way, it's a big win for the franchise and the fans.

Brewers 16-16, -1.5 (3 v. Red Sox, 3 v. Mets, 4 @ Padres)
Reds 17-14, +0.5 (2 v. Yankees, 4 @ Giants, 3 @ Cubs
Twins 15-14, -1.5 (3 @ White Sox, 3 @ Indians, 3 v. Rockies

Erik - 4 (+5 worked)

Peter - 9

Friday, April 28, 2017

Frame Park

All photos of Frame Park available on Flickr.

After working in Waukesha for over 3 years, I finally made it out to a Carroll University game this week.  Like many college baseball teams in the more temperate regions of the US, the home season is really only a month long due to weather, and in the case of smaller colleges like Carroll, many games are played at odd afternoon times.  So, making it out to the park has proved to be a challenge.  But I was there on Tuesday for a few innings during a beautifully mild April evening to watch the Pioneers lace up against the North Park Vikings out of Chicago.

The ballpark was about what I expected for a Division III school - namely, that it wasn't really a ballpark.  Much like the UW-Milwaukee Panthers, the Pioneers actually play in a city park with a community baseball field inside of it.  If you search "Frame Park" on Google Maps, Frame Park is actually the name of the park, and the field inside is just labeled as "Baseball Field."  I would say that it is only slightly above a high-school level field, at least the high school fields I played (sat in the dugout) at.  There are 3 sections of metal bleachers, no gates, concessions, or amenities of any kinds, a couple of chain link dugouts, and an outfield fence.  Being that it is an actual college and these games do matter to somebody, there is a PA announcer and a inning-tally style scoreboard, but other than that there are zero frills.  Were I not on a mission to tally as many ballparks visited as possible, objectively I probably wouldn't even classify this as a "ballpark."  But hey, watching a ballgame on a beautiful night is never in vain, no matter where.  Outside of the ballpark itself, Frame Park as a whole is very beautiful.  There are some formal gardens, an outdoor amphitheater, a place to rent boats, a public pool, and a scenic riverwalk that runs beyond the left field fence.

The riverwalk was getting bombarded with homeruns all night in the 19-13 slugfest.  A combination of a steady south wind blowing out, lackluster D-3 pitching, and just good ol' metal bats were a lethal combo that got the scoring going right out the gates with 3-run top of the 1st by the visiting Vikings.  As you can imagine with a score like that, every single starter had a hit for both teams, and every single Viking had at least 2 hits.  Diminutive leadoff hitter Jared Cantu went 4-5 for North Park and 5 players homered in the game.  There was also a Vikings player named Tyler Kopp who at the time I thought sounded like Ty Cobb, so I was disappointed just now to learn his actual name.  He had a day that his non-relative would be proud of though, coming up a double shy of the cycle.  Starter Andrew Stone for the Pioneers had a forgettable line that did not impress the lone scout in attendance: 11 ER on 13 hits and a walk in 2.2 IP.  The Carroll University website does not post ERAs, but I don't even want to do that math.  The score was 10-4 when he exited the game and it was extended to 19-4 by the 4th inning including 7-run outing by Cam Godinsky.  The Pioneers slowly chipped away at the lead but alas the deficit was too large, even for a bandbox field like Frame Park.

I didn't stay very long because it was brutal to watch and I was a little under the weather, but nonetheless outdoor baseball in April in Wisconsin is something I always try to take advantage of.

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 1
views from park – 7 (Fox River)

view to field - 2
surrounding area – 6 (Frame Park)
food variety - n/a
nachos - n/a
beer - n/a

vendor price - n/a
ticket price - n/a
atmosphere - 2
walk to park – 5
parking price/proximity - 10
concourses - n/a
team shop - n/a

best food – n/a
most unique stadium feature – Fox Riverwalk beyond outfield fence
best jumbotron feature – n/a; only showed box score
best between-inning feature – hearing the cheers in the dugout

field dimensions – not listed - I would guess about 315/380
starters – Josh Ward (NPU) v. Andrew Stone (CU)
opponent – North Park Vikings
time of game – 3:00
attendance – 110 (surprisingly listed on team website and shockingly inaccurate)
score – 19-13 L

Brewers score that day – 9-1 W

Brewers 12-11 (3 v. Braves, 4 @ Cardinals, 3 @ Pirates)
Reds 10-12 (3 @ Cardinals, 4 v. Pirates, 3 v. Giants
Twins 10-11 (3 @ Royals, 3 v. Athletics, 3 v. Red Sox

Erik - 3 (+4 worked)

Peter - 7