Northwest by North: Baseball road trip, 2015
In contrast to last year, when I ventured far off into the desert Southwest, for my big baseball sojourn this year I went straight north before turning toward the west. It had been many years since my last visit to Canada, and I was long overdue for a return. I picked an opportune time, in terms of weather and the overall baseball situation. My schedule was dictated by various factors, and the fact that the Blue Jays, Tigers, and White Sox were playing home games on three consecutive days made it just too convenient for me to pass up. I had never been to Toronto before, had been to Detroit (and Comerica Park) only once, and had been to U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago twice before, but had never gotten inside.
July 19: Toronto
My first major destination was Rogers Centre in Toronto. (On my way there, the night before, I paid a brief stop at Coca-Cola Field in Buffalo, New York. Although a minor league stadium, it was architecturally innovative and can be considered the original Neoclassical / "Retro" ballpark, predating Camden Yards by four years.) Around noon on Sunday, July 19, I drove into Toronto, and had my first closeup look at Rogers Centre. (I had glimpsed it from far away on the other side of Lake Erie that morning, and likewise while I was in upstate New York in 2000.) It was a warm and sunny day, almost uncomfortably so, in fact. Great for taking photos, and good for beer sales as well, I'm sure. I sampled Labatt's IPA, known as Keith Alexander. It's very good, but not as hoppy as most IPAs.
Since it was Sunday, all the banks were closed, and changing money was a challenge. The concessionaires would accept U.S. dollars at "par value," meaning one-for-one with the Canadian dollar, a.k.a., the "Loonie," named for the bird on the dollar coin. (There is no dollar bill in Canada.) The current exchange rate is about 75 U.S. cents per Canadian dollar, so I was at a disadvantage. There are a range of parking options in downtown Toronto, at least on weekends. I parked about six blocks away and paid $20 for it.
Before settling down into my seat (upper deck on the third base side), I walked all around the stadium, taking lots of photos and making mental notes of details. I made a few minor "discoveries," and after looking at the photos I took, I'm afraid there's going to be another diagram revision for Rogers Centre in the near future. Stay tuned...
The Blue Jays faced the Tampa Bay Rays and their hot young pitcher, Chris Archer. As expected, it was a low-scoring game, and for the first four innings the two teams only had two hits apiece. In the bottom of the fifth, Justin Smoak singled and Chris Colabello homered into the left-center field to give the home team a 2-0 lead. In the eighth inning, rookie phenomenon Josh Donaldson walked, and Jose Bautista hit a home run that just cleared the fence to the left of center field. (See baseball-reference.com.)And that was all the scoring. Final score: Blue Jays 4, Rays 0.
That brought the Blue Jays up to the .500 level (47-47), while bringing the Rays down to that same level. Since July 20, the Rays have continued to flounder, while the Blue Jays have soared, taking possession of first place in the AL East from the New York Yankees. Believe it or not, there might be postseason baseball in Toronto this fall for the first time since 1993 -- when the Blue Jays won the World Series!
It so happened that there was another big sporting event in Toronto that week: the 2015 Pan American Games. (See toronto2015.org.) Canada's baseball team beat the Americans, but there was apparently some controversy in how the game ended. Much of the waterfront area in Toronto was devoted to hosting various competitions, including the new BMO Stadium, home of Toronto FC soccer team. I had a good view of it while driving along the freeway. It is situated approximately where the old Exhibition Stadium once stood. BMO Stadium was expanded during the 2014-2015 off-season; see globalnews.ca. That article mentions that the CFL Toronto Argonauts are expected to move in, but the deal has not been finalized. The Argonauts are supposed to leave Rogers Centre after next year.
July 20: Detroit
The next day I drove back into the U.S.A., but there was a one-hour delay at the border, where customs officials and security personnel were checking each vehicle and passenger very carefully. Then I took a wrong turn driving into downtown Detroit from the north, wasting at least ten minutes. As a result, I didn't get inside Comerica Park until the end of the second inning, just after the Tigers had retaken the lead, 3-2. But the Mariners scored one run each in the fifth and sixth innings, making it 4-3 in favor of the visitors. The play that decided the game came in the bottom of the eighth inning, when Ian Kinsler homered for a second time, batting in Jose Iglesias. That really delighted the beleaguered home town fans. Joakim Soria got three quick outs pitching in the top of the ninth inning, thus getting his 21st save of the season. Final score: Tigers 5, Mariners 4.
It was nearly dusk by the time I got inside the stadium, so the photos I took were marred by suboptimal lighting conditions. One thing I noticed after the game was that the back ten or so rows of seats in the lower deck (near the infield) are nice movable wooden seats, allowing fans to get comfortable. Apparently, they installed those seats a few years ago. I noticed a few other details that will necessitate minor revisions to the Comerica Park diagrams in the near future.
Obviously, the Tigers have had a disappointing season, even more so than the Nationals (!), but until late July, there was still a flicker of hope that they might somehow reach the postseason. It was David Price Bobblehead Day, but ironically he was traded to the Blue Jays only about a week later. I suppose it made sense from a business standpoint, but it was sure lousy public relations.
I parked in a lot on the north side of Ford Field (home of the Lions), paying $25. After the game, I drove over to the site on Michigan Avenue where Tiger Stadium once stood, hoping to see some of the recent improvements. In spite of utter indifference from the municipal authorities, a grassroots civic group called the "Navin Field Grounds Crew" has worked diligently to turn that parcel of land into a well-maintained park, complete with flag pole, grass, and a baseball diamond where the old one used to be. Unfortunately, there was a crazy guy yelling something on the sidewalk, and since it's a rather iffy part of town, I only stayed for the minute or so it took to snap this photo:
July 21: Chicago (south)
On the next day I arrived in the Windy City with plenty of time to spare, thanks to the time zone shift. In fact, I had to wait about 15 minutes just to get into the parking lot, which only cost ten bucks. It was a beautiful afternoon, with clear blue skies, but the shadow of the grandstand already covered about half of the field. Too bad it wasn't a day game. I spent a lot of team exploring the upper deck, including the concourse and exit ramps, which provide fine views of Chicago. My overall first impression of the much-maligned stadium was positive. The "new" roof added in 2003 (when they chopped the top eight rows off of the upper deck looks fine, as if it had been planned that way all along. It's just a shame they have so many luxury suite levels, as it would have been nice to have a better view from the upper deck. I was in the third row, and couldn't see the right field corner below me. Unfortunately, the White Sox enforce a strict form of seating "apartheid," and lowly upper-deck patrons are not allowed into the lower deck, or even into the bleachers. After the game was over, I sneaked into the lower deck and took some quick photos there. There may be a few revisions to U.S. Cellular Field diagrams based on what I saw, but nothing very big.
The Chicago White Sox were on an upswing in late July, but faced a daunting opponent in the St. Louis Cardinals on July 21 and 22. The Cardinals had a win-loss record around .640, several games ahead of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and in fact, they still do. Hundreds of Cardinals fans follow their team from city to city, much like "Red Sox Nation," and the interleague matchup was no exception. Several of them were sitting a couple rows in back of me, and as we bantered, I reminded them that when it comes to the postseason playoffs, the regular-season winning percentages don't matter a bit. (That, of course, was one of the lessons learned by the Washington Nationals in 2012 and 2014.)
The Cardinals had a 3-0 lead by the fourth inning, at which point Matt Holliday hit a grand slam to make it a 7-0 game. The White Sox fans were glum, but their team bravely fought back, with two runs in the bottom of the fourth, and three in the bottom of the fifth, when Geovany Soto and Tyler Saladino both homered. I was glad to see former National Adam LaRoche, who singled (0 for 4) as the designated hitter. But nobody scored in the last four innings, and the final score was Cardinals 8, White Sox 5.
Heading East: Missouri
Coincidentally, the two stadiums I saw on August 10 were the homes of the two teams with the highest winning percentages in the major leagues: the Kansas City Royals and the St. Louis Cardinals. I was thinking about seeing the Royals play against the Tigers that evening, since it was the home debut of recently-acquired pitcher Jose Cueto. (Coincidentally, I had seen him pitch in Washington on July 7, when the Reds beat the Nationals.) But time was not on my side, and I had to make haste, with just a quick "drive-by" of Kauffman Stadium. In the afternoon, I arrived in St. Louis, and took some photos from the top of the Gateway Arch, including some of Busch Stadium. Since the last time I stopped there (August 17, 2011), the "Baseball Village" retail complex (on the site of the previous Busch Stadium) has been completed.
Coincidentally, two of the stadiums I visited (Rogers Centre and U.S. Cellular Field) were built at about the same time (1989 and 1991), at the tail end of the "Cookie-cutter Era" of baseball architecture. Another coincidence was that two of those stadiums are the only ones whose interiors can be seen from high above from an adjacent (or nearby) tower. (There used to be a third such stadium, Olympic Stadium, and a long time ago there was Forbes Field!) Next time I'm in Toronto I'll go up the CN Tower.
The game in Toronto was the first time I had ever seen an MLB game being played on artificial turf. I was too high up in the stadium to notice any big difference in how the ball bounced, but I do recall being appalled by the brown-colored carpet that serves as a "warning track." I asked one of the stadium staffers about plans for putting in grass, and was told that they are still conducting studies to see if it will work. If they go ahead with that, it would be at least two years in the future.
I visited two NFL stadiums during my trip (Ford Field in Detroit, and Edward Jones Field in St. Louis), and also visited two major college football stadiums: the gigantic Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, and Memorial Stadium, in Lincoln, Nebraska. Next door to the world-famous Dakota Dome (in Vermillion, South Dakota), there is construction on a new arena, where the basketball team will move about 16 months from now. As I found out a couple years ago, the Dakota Dome is not well suited to basketball. Finally, I was going to visit Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, but it didn't work out. I did see the minor league Coca-Cola Field (formerly Pilot Field) in Buffalo, however.
It was almost exactly 28 years since my last visit to Canada. Both times I visited an MLB stadium with a retractable roof (Olympic Stadium, Rogers Centre), both times I then proceeded to go west, and both times I stopped in St. Louis on the way back east, ascending the Gateway Arch to take a photo of the baseball stadium below. Of course, now there is a different Busch Stadium there.
And as for recent news concerning the Washington Nationals (Ouch!), I'll leave that for tomorrow...