August 14, 2012 [LINK / comment]

Baseball road trip 2012: Chicago & Cleveland

My annual expedition to visit far-away baseball palaces was very rewarding and quite special, from a personal point of view. Much like last year, I didn't actually accomplish a great deal in quantitative terms, but I made the most out of the two "close encounters" I had, eagerly scrutinizing the architectural details and taking pictures from every conceivable angle. This time, for a change, I planned my trip in advance with the express intention of fitting the schedules of the various teams in the Midwest, and I did manage to see games in Chicago and Cleveland.

Cubs beat the Marlins

On Thursday July 19, I saw the Cubs play the Miami (!) Marlins in the historic Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field. The traffic in Chicago was even more horrible than usual, but at least the snail's pace gave me a chance to snap some quick photos of U.S. Cellular Field, home of the White Sox, while en route to the Cubs' game. Even though I gave myself an extra hour "just in case," I still didn't get inside the ballpark until the top of the second inning. I was fortunate to get a parking space in the alley-garage of a local resident who lives on Racine Avenue, only a couple blocks from the ballpark. The folks in "Wrigleyville" have a well-organized system by which late-arrivees (like me) can get nearby parking for a reasonable (premium) price -- in my case, $25. (They even give their customers a ticket, so it must be legit!) For evening and weekend games, out-of-town visitors can park for a modest price at DeVry University, about two miles west, and get a free shuttle ride to Wrigley Field, but this was an afternoon game.

The weather that day was relatively mild, but rather humid and cloudy. In northern Indiana that morning, I drove through some fierce thunderstorms, and I was afraid the game might be rained out or delayed. Fortunately, that didn't happen. I didn't miss anything important during the first inning and a half, and no runs were scored until the bottom of the fifth inning. That's when aging slugger Alfonso Soriano (who played for the Nationals in 2006) hit a lead-off home run to start a big rally. Luis Valbuena later hit a sacrifice fly to score Jeff Baker, and Reed Johnson hit two-run double (scoring Geovany Soto and Darwin Barney) to cap the four-run inning. Soriano has shown overall improvement this year, but no other teams seem to want him, because of the costly contract that he carries. I should note that in the fourth inning, he made a great catch of a long fly ball to the left field corner hit by Carlos Lee. The Marlins came back with one run in the sixth inning and another run in the ninth inning, allowed by the Cubs' often-shaky closing pitcher Carlos Marmol. Final score: Cubs 4, Marlins 2, with 32,741 fans in attendance. I was delighted to hear the happy crowd singing "Go, Cubs, Go!" after the game was over. smile That loyal, devoted fan base is what keeps that franchise going, through good times and (more often) bad times.

The Marlins' starting pitcher, veteran Mark Buehrle, was tagged with all four runs, and was replaced after the fifth inning. I was very impressed by the Cubs' starter Paul Maholm (pronounced "mah-HALL-um"), but it turned out to be his last start as a Cub in Chicago, as he was traded to the Atlanta Braves a week later, along with Reed Johnson. Meanwhile, pitching ace Ryan Dempster and catcher Geovany Soto were traded to the Texas Rangers, as the Cubs held a virtual fire sale in preparation for a long-term "rebuilding" effort. During the game, I saw the Cubs' roguish former pitcher Carlos Zambrano grinning in the visiting team's dugout. He didn't pitch that day, so he had no occasion to throw a violent temper tantrum.

For the record, the last time I saw a game at Wrigley Field was in 1963, which was 49 years ago! "Believe it or not!" It later occurred to me that the exact same number of years had elapsed between the construction of Wrigley Field, a.k.a. "Weeghman Park," (1914) and my first game there as have elapsed between my first and second games there. It boggles my mind to think that the beloved home of the Cubs was only half as old when I first saw it as it is now. Does that make me old? Is the Pope Catholic??

I submitted my impressions of Wrigley Field (scroll to the botttom of that page), and will elaborate on that in the days to come.

Hesitation plus indecision

On my return trip from South Dakota, I was hoping to see games at U.S. Cellular Field (which I had photographed while stuck in Chicago traffic three weeks earlier) and/or Comerica Park in Detroit. The first option didn't work out because I took an impromptu detour through northeastern Iowa, thinking I might stop at the Field of Dreams movie site in Dyersville. That threw me behind schedule, however, and as a result, I didn't reach south Chicago until the sixth inning of the Royals-White Sox game on August 6. D'oh! The next day I toured the campus of Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana, and drove into southern Michigan to keep my options open, but ultimately decided against seeing the Yankees play the Tigers in Detroit that evening, in which case I would have seen the Twins-Indians game on the following afternoon. At the time, playing it safe and not overdoing it seemed the prudent thing to do, but I soon had second thoughts. Can I have a do-over? Darn.

Twins torture the Indians

In any case, I arrived at Progressive Field (formerly Jacobs Field), home of the Cleveland Indians, about an hour before the 7:05 game time on [Tuesday], August 7. I was amazed by how easy and cheap the parking was, just two quick turns after the exit from where I-90 crosses the Cuyahoga River. Only twelve bucks for a ground-level space in the adjacent parking garage!!?? That is a sad reflection of the poor attendance at Indians games in recent years: only 14,813 were there that evening.

The weather was just perfect, with mild temperatures and camera-friendly crystal blue clear skies. The Indians were hosting the Minnesota Twins, who had won the first game of the series 14-3 the night before. The Tribe was in the midst of a terrible slump, having lost ten games in a row, so I was rooting for them that night, even though I have stronger regional sympathies with the Twins. Both teams scored a run in the first inning, and then the Indians scored three more in the second, thanks to a home run by Shelley Duncan and an RBI single by Asdrubal Cabrera. In the sixth inning, Carlos Santana (no, not the guitarist) hit an RBI double to give the home team a 5-1 lead, giving the crowd much to cheer about. But something happened in the top of the seventh to make you wonder if this team is really jinxed: a routine ground ball went right between the legs of second baseman Jason Kipnis, allowing two (unearned) runs to score. The Indians were still ahead 5-4 in the top of the ninth, whereupon their closing pitcher Chris Perez (who was introduced with a blazing scoreboard display) totally flubbed his appointed task. Three of the first four batters reached base, including two hits and a strange ball hit by Justin Morneau that looked to me like it bounced from foul territory over first base back into fair territory, as if it were a pool shot with a lot of "English." Casey Kotchman misplayed it and was charged with an error. (See for others' descriptions of that play.) A double, two singles, and a walk later, the Twins were ahead by two runs, and Perez was replaced on the mound amid a chorus of boos, having blown the save opportunity. The Indians (and their fans) were too stunned to react coherently, going down 1-2-3 in the bottom of the ninth. Final score: Twins 7, Indians 5. Make that eleven losses in a row: "the agony of defeat." Ouch! Quite a contrast to the upbeat vibes I had experienced on the north side of Chicago. frown

Listening to Cleveland talk radio after the game, it sounded like the Apocalypse had come. Gloom, doom, misery, and despondency. The next day the radio hosts were inviting callers to confess their various sins that might have led to the unbelievably horrible twist of fate the night before. Well, maybe all that expiation did some good, because the Indians actually beat the Twins the next day, finally ending their losing streak.

August 2012 montage

Clockwise from top right: Wrigley Field southwest external panorama and grand view, the wrought-iron gate at Prentis Ballpark (Vermillion, SD), U.S. Cellular Field east external panorama, and Progressive Field southwest gate and the scoreboard / bleachers in left field.

As one might imagine, since returning from my trip last week, I have been busy making changes to the Wrigley Field and Progressive Field diagrams, especially the latter. Obsessed with accuracy? That's putting it mildly. I have also been editing a large number of photos which I took at those stadiums, which will appear on the respective pages in the very near future...

Nationals lead the major leagues

Someone at the Cleveland game commented on the Nationals cap I was wearing, saying he was glad the Nats are doing so well this year. That was nice. Yes, folks, it's true. The Washington Nationals have the very best win-loss record of all 30 Major League Baseball franchises: 72-44, a .621 percentage. That is the culmination of an eight-game winning streak that was interrupted on Sunday by the Arizona Diamondbacks. No other team has yet reached the 70-win plateau.

Prior to the series in Phoenix, the Nationals swept the Houston Astros in four games straight. The first two games of that series were extra-innings affairs that really should not have been so close. In the Tuesday game, Danny Espinosa got all three RBIs for the Nationals, including an early home run and a clutch single in the 12th inning. But equal credit (at least) goes to Roger Bernadina, who made an amazing catch to deep left center in Minute Maid Park, in one of those corners out of view of most fans, turning what would have been a game-tying (or game-winning) RBI double into the final out of the game. Whew! Wednesday's game was also close, 4-3, with the notable feature being that starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez pitched a complete nine-inning game. The Nats won the final game of that series on Thursday 5-0, thanks in great measure to the two home runs hit by Michael ("The Beast Is Back") Morse, and the eleven strikeouts thrown by starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann.

But perhaps the highlight of the entire 2012 season came last night, as the Nationals began a three-game series in San Francisco by tearing the NL West first-place Giants limb from limb. Ryan Zimmerman hit an RBI double in the first inning, putting pressure on the pitcher, Ryan Vogelsong. In the third inning they scored seven more runs, helped by some unusual infield singles. The newest National, catcher Kurt Suzuki, got his first big hit, a three-run double down the left field line. The Nats scored three more runs in both the fourth and fifth innings, including a home run to center field by the surprising slugger Danny Espinosa. Not exactly the pitchers' duel that most people expected. Vogelsong gave up eight runs (all earned) in only 2 2/3 innings, and was thereby toppled from the #1 spot in major league ERA, replaced by Jordan Zimmermann. The Nats' starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez gave up two runs in the eighth inning, and earned his league-leading 15th win of the season. See and/or the Curly W blog. The 14-2 blowout was the Nationals' highest score of the year, and tied the team record (since 2005) for biggest victory margin. See the Washington Nationals page.

Speaking of data trends, the Nationals now have an average home attendance over 30,000 for this year -- the first time they have reached that mark since their inaugural season of 2005. This has been helped by a big post-All Star Game surge. As the pennant race heats up, they could draw as many as 2.5 million fans for 2012 as a whole.

Of course, the innings limit imposed on Stephen Strasburg by General Manager Mike Rizzo will put a crimp in things, making it harder to keep up the pace during the final month of the regular season, but the Nationals have plenty of depth in all departments. John Lannan pitched just fine in his two brief starting appearances this year, and can be expected to be called back up from the minors and fill a slot in the rotation very soon. Maybe they'll use a six-man rotation, or just have Strasburg skip every other cycle. But what about October???

The Nationals: "We're #1!" (at least for now)

Etc., etc., etc.

Speaking of "fire sales" (see Cubs above), the Miami Marlins have sharply reduced their payroll in recent trades that have angered many people in southern Florida. It reminds one of what happened after the Marlins won the 1997 and 2003 World Series. Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante were traded to the Detroit Tigers, and young slugging star Hanley Ramirez, who has had a mediocre year, was traded to the L.A. Dodgers. Owner Jeffrey Loria and team president David Samson are being blamed for raising fans hopes in the first season of the new stadium, and then cashing in as quick as they could: "Two charlatans, ripping off a major American city and laughing all the way to the bank." Is that description fair? You be the judge. See Yahoo Sports; hat tip to Bruce Orser.

Last month I stated that I had updated the Anomalous stadiums page, but it turns out that I had never uploaded said file (until today, that is), so I made a few more updates and minor corrections to that page.

Now that I've gotten caught up on recent events, I can turn my attention to recent stadium news from Mike Zurawski as well as e-mail correspondence from other friendly folks out there. I'm sorry for the slow response time, and I appreciate your patience.