March 9, 2021 [LINK / comment]
Nationals assemble championship-caliber team
Back in early December, Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo was told by the Lerner family to put together a team capable of winning it all, and that is just what he has done. Just about all the holes in the Nats' roster have been filled with experienced, top-quality talent, and all of a sudden, the Nats have become the team to beat in the NL East this year. The following table, which is also displayed on the Washington Nationals page, is "subject to revision." [Each player is identified by position, former team, contract terms, month of transaction, and special factors.]
New contracts of note
- Josh Harrison (U) -- 1 year, $1 million (Oct.)
- Joe Ross [P] -- 1 year, $1.5 million (Dec.) AE
- Josh Bell (1B, PIT) -- 1 year, $6.35 million (Dec.) TRADE / AE
- Kyle Schwarber (LF, CHC) -- 1 year, $10 million (Jan.)
- Trea Turner (SS) -- 1 year, $13 million (Jan.) AE
- Juan Soto (LF) -- 1 year, $8.5 million (Jan.) AE
- Jon Lester (LHP, CHC) -- 1 year, $5 million (Jan.) D
- Ryan Zimmerman (1B) -- 1 year, $1 million + (Jan.)
- Brad Hand (RHP, CLE) -- 1 year, $10.5 million (Jan.)
- Alex Avila (C, MIN) -- 1 year, $1.5 million (Jan.)
"+" = optional extension (mutual or otherwise). "D" = part of salary is deferred. "AE" = arbitration eligible. Dollar figures are rounded.
The first big move came on Christmas Eve, when the Nationals acquired [first baseman] Josh Bell in a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates. In return, the Nats sent Wil Crowe and [Eddy Yean (both pitchers)] to Pittsburgh. Bell became the Pirates' star player after the departure of Andrew McCutcheon, and his loss was yet another big blow to Pirate fans' hopes for a competitive year.
In early January, Kyle Schwarber signed a fat $10 million contract with the Nats. He had a down season with the Chicago Cubs last year, batting just .188, and he did not receive a tender offer after the season ended. At the tender age of just 27, however, there are big expectations for him to rebound this year. He is a power hitter who played a part in the Cubs' 2016 World Series victory (after missing most of that year due to injury), but he is not known for hitting consistently or fielding the ball while in the outfield. He will presumably play [left] field for the Nats, depending on the center fielder (Victor Robles) for help with balls hit into the gap.
In mid-January, the Nats came to terms with shortstop Trea Turner and outfielder Juan Soto, who each signed one-year contracts worth, respectively, $13 million and $8.5 million. Thus the nuisance of arbitration was avoided. They both deserve multi-year contracts, and the Nats will have to put down a lot of dough to keep them both.
Right hand pitcher Jon Lester is another former Chicago Cub who was allowed to become a free agent. Unlike Schwarber, he is a veteran (age 37), with declining performance. His pitching speed has declined in recent years, but he is expected to be a solid part of an already-excellent rotation. His contract specifies that $3 million of the $5 million total will be paid as a signing bonus two years hence -- in 2023.
Next the Nats acquired former Cleveland Indian pitcher Brad Hand, and he is expected to be the closing pitcher, replacing Daniel Hudson in that role. His $10.5 million salary seems high, but the Nationals are apparently desperate to avoid a repeat of the frantic search for a closer that has happened in most recent years. Bullpen stability would be a huge benefit for the Nationals.
Later in the month, Ryan Zimmerman signed a renewed one-year contract for a mere $1 million, a clear demonstration of how much he loves the game and how much affection he has for the city of Washington, where he has played his entire professional career. This was a big relief for long-time fans of his, including me. He will be the second-string first baseman behind Josh Bell (who used to play outfield, actually), and will also pinch hit.
And finally, at the end of January, the Nats signed former Minnesota Twins catcher Alex Avila to a one-year contract. He spent most of his career with the Detroit Tigers,
but for some reason never had more than 57 at-bats in a year. [CORRECTION: I was misled by looking at his spring training stats. Actually, he averaged 265 at-bats over 11 full seasons.] I saw Avila play in Wrigley Field on August 5, 2017, a few days after he was acquired by the Chicago Cubs in a trade with the Detroit Tigers. He hit a home run that day, helping the Cubs beat the Nationals. [See my Aug. 16, 2017 blog post, with a photo of Avila scooping up the ball as Bryce Harper struck out to end the game.]
And, just for good measure, the Nats and Gerardo "Baby Shark" Parra reached a minor league deal, with an invitation to attend the Nats' spring training. After giving the Nats some much-needed good vibes during their triumphant 2019 season, he played in Japan last year. Could he work the same magic again?
The Washington Nationals page has been updated with new information on the Nats' probable starting lineup and new player contracts.
Departing the Nationals are Michael A. Taylor, who signed with the Kansas City Royals after an up-and-down decade with the Nationals; Adam Eaton, who returned to the Chicago White Sox, from whence he was acquired prior to the 2017 season via a trade involving pitching star Lucas Giolito; and Howie Kendrick, the hero of the Nats' 2019 postseason, who decided to retire. We wish them all the best in their respective futures.
Spring training 2021
Spring training began a few weeks ago, and actual games got underway at the end of February. The Nationals tied their first game, with the Cardinals, and then lost their next three before winning three in a row and tying with the Houston Astros today. That gives them a 3-3-2 record. Several of the Nats' new players, including Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber, have already shown great promise. Ryan Zimmerman got an RBI single to start the Nats' victory over the New York Mets earlier in the week, another good sign. Stephen Strasburg pitched very well, and Max Scherzer seems to have recovered from a twisted ankle. Jon Lester had surgery to remove a thyroid gland, and apparently he won't miss much practice time at all.
The Nats will face stiff competition from the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves this year, and the whole National League East Division looks very solid, in contrast to the rather pathetic performance in last year's shortened season. I will attempt to summarize prospects for other teams and other divisions before the regular season begins, just over three weeks from today!
Different cities will handle things differently, but it seems almost certain that most if not all teams will allow partial fan attendance when the regular season gets underway on April 1st. After some delays, the pace of covid-19 vaccinations has dramatically increased, and we could resume semi-normal life by next summer...
Spring 2021 road trip
In late February I took a road trip to New Orleans, passing through several states on the way there and back. While in Birmingham, Alabama, I paid a visit to historic Rickwood Field, built in 1910 -- the oldest baseball stadium in the United States! Its design was based on Forbes Field (built one year earlier), and was named after the owner of the Birmingham Barons, Richard Woodward. Unfortunately, it was raining that day, or else I would have spent more time getting photographs there. About an hour later I stopped in Tuscaloosa, Alabama to see Bryant-Denny Stadium, home of the NCAA champion Alabama Crimson Tide since 1929. On the east side of the stadium are a series of statues honoring the team's past coaches such as Paul "Bear" Bryant, as well as the current coach, Nick Saban. In New Orleans, I made a brief visit to the Superdome, where thousands of people took refuge from massive flooding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in September 2005. It used to be used as an occasional venue for college baseball games, and even MLB exhibition games, but since the renovations in 2011, such a reconfiguration is no longer possible. I noticed the compass is slightly off in my diagrams, so I will probably make minor revisions to them in the near future.
It is worth mentioning that the Washington Nationals' original AAA farm team was the New Orleans Zephyrs, but that only lasted two years [: 2005-2006. Located in Metairie, a suburb on the west side of New Orleans,] Zephyr Field (now called "Shrine on Airline"!?) was where Ryan Zimmerman first played in the Nationals organization. The Zephyrs were renamed the "Baby Cakes" in 2017, and were supposed to relocate to Wichita, Kansas in 2020, but all minor league games were canceled last year, so that change will (presumably) take place this year.
On the way back to Virginia, I passed through Mobile, Alabama, but it was too late in the day to see the museum that has been built for home-town hero Hank Aaron, who recently passed away. The next day while driving along the bypass around Atlanta, I stopped at Truist Park (see update below), which was concealed from view by the surrounding high-rise buildings until we were right there. The sudden view of it caught my wife completely by surprise, giving me a chuckle. I was rather surprised that the street passing to the east of the stadium dips well below the level of the playing field -- at least 30 feet, I would guess. I got out to take photos, and as expected, I couldn't see much from the plaza beyond right field. Nevertheless, I did get plenty of exterior photos which provided me with oodles of information on architectural details for my diagrams.
Those who are interested can see my newly-updated Football stadiums photo gallery page, which now includes Bryant-Denny Stadium and the Superdome.
Truist Park, the almost-new home of the Atlanta Braves, Rickwood Field, former home of the Birmingham Barons, and the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, home of the New Orleans Saints.
Truist Park update
Fascinated by all the quirky features I saw at Truist Park, I just had to incorporate them into my diagrams. Of course, that meant that I had to review all the aspects of the diagrams, making necessary corrections. The most notable alteration is that the roof now tapers toward both the left field and right field ends. There are several minor corrections in the angle of the grandstand and the position of certain detailed features. The outfield wall in left field now angles out more sharply from the foul pole. Some details in the first-deck diagram are conjectural (hence subject to revision), pending a visit inside the stadium. You can compare to new diagram version to the old (2018) version by clicking on the diagram image on that page. There is a new "full-size" diagram that includes some of the adjacent hotels and other structures that surround the plaza beyond right field.
March 10, 2021 [LINK / comment]
Birding in Louisiana (& nearby areas)
Two weeks ago, Jacqueline and I took a road trip to New Orleans, and of course, birding was one of the major objectives. Of the three major stops on our way down there (Chattanooga, Birmingham, and Tuscaloosa), I only had one notable bird encounter -- two or three Eastern Towhees calling in the empty lots adjacent to Rickwood Field in Birmingham. At the rest stops along I-59 in Alabama and Mississippi, we saw plenty of American Robins, along with some probable Cedar Waxwings and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Just after 3:00 PM on Monday February 22, we crossed into Louisiana. I tried to find one of the birding hot spots listed in my Reader's Digest book Where the Birds Are (2007), Bogue Chitto National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), but soon decided it was too difficult to reach. About 20 minutes later we arrived at the second such hot spot that I had prioritized in that book...
Big Branch Marsh
Big Branch Marsh NWR is located on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, about 25 miles north-northeast of downtown New Orleans. After locating the Boy Scout trail head located in a stand of tall pine trees, Jacqueline and I went for a walk along the boardwalk. Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are known to nest in that area, and I found a nest hole surrounded by oozing pine sap, matching the description of that species' nest hole. I didn't have much time to search, but things soon got interesting, as I saw multiple Brown-headed Nuthatches and Pine Warblers in the tree tops. Up ahead on the boardwalk, Jacqueline then called out that a pink bird was in the water: indeed, it was a Roseate Spoonbill! After that we saw Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Little Blue Herons, and Snowy Egrets. It was almost too dazzling to behold, a lot like some of the places I had visited in Florida four years earlier. On our way out of Big Branch Marsh, we saw several Orange-crowned Warblers in the bushes -- my first definite sighting of that species -- as well as Yellow-rumped Warblers. One photo I took which I thought was an Orange-crowned Warbler (on the right in the montage below) is probably a Common Yellowthroat, based on the pink legs and a hint of a "face mask." In any event, it was quite a spectacular start to our adventure in Louisiana!
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Brown-headed Nuthatch, Snowy Egrets, Pine Warbler, Common Yellowthroat (?), Roseate Spoonbill, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, and Little Blue Heron. (Big Branch Marsh NWR, February 22, 2021)
The next day was devoted to exploring New Orleans, but we came across a surprising number of interesting birds in various neighborhoods. While having breakfast at Cafe Du Monde I heard and then saw a Yellow-rumped Warbler very close by. They are quite abundant in Louisiana during the winter, I found. While walking along the Mississippi River late in the morning, Jacqueline and I saw several Brown Pelicans fly past, just a few feet above the water. High above, a flock of American White Pelicans (40+) passed by in tight formation. The former are year-round residents, and the latter winter along the Gulf coast before returning to their breeding grounds on lakes across the northern plains. There's a good reason that Louisiana is called "The Pelican State"! To my surprise, there were several dozen Lesser Scaup on the river, as well as a few Double-crested Cormorants. In the afternoon, we took the St. Charles Avenue streetcar about four miles west to Audubon Park, across from Tulane and Loyola Universities. There we saw a Great Egret, a White Ibis, a pair of Northern Shovelers, and many Yellow-rumped Warblers, American Robins, etc., etc.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: American White Pelicans, Brown Pelican, Great Egret, Lesser Scaup, Double-crested Cormorant, White Ibis, and in center, Yellow-rumped Warbler. (New Orleans, February 23, 2021)
Bayou country birding
The plan on Wednesday was to explore the swampy bayou country that surrounds New Orleans, but unfortunately the skies had turned cloudy, and the birds seemed correspondingly less abundant. In the morning we headed southwest from New Orleans to the Barataria Preserve at the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park. It was true "bayou" country, with almost all the houses raised 5' - 10' feet above the ground to guard against flooding from hurricanes. Eventually we found the trail head, behind some local school buildings. There is a one-mile boardwalk (similar to Augusta Springs) that provides an excellent view of swamp ecology, and we saw lots of huge yellow snails, turtles, lizards ("Green Anoles"), and three alligators! Yellow-rumped Warblers were all around, once again, but not until the end did we see other species. Those included Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Eastern Phoebes, Swamp Sparrows, Red-winged Blackbirds, Pileated Woodpeckers, as well as a Great Egret and a Little Blue Heron.
Later we drove back through the city toward the northeast, and after a few odd turns found the Bayou Sauvage NWR, about 15 miles to the northeast. I had high hopes, but almost all of the birds were what we had seen before: Yellow-rumped Warblers, a Great Egret, a Little Blue Heron, and many Red-winged Blackbirds and American Robins. The one notable novelty there was a Caspian Tern hunting over a bayou. I originally thought it was a Common Tern, and then a Forster's Tern, but the thick reddish bill is indicative.
In the late afternoon we headed east into Mississippi, where we saw the Gulf of Mexico for the first time. There were many Brown Pelicans, Laughing Gulls, and other gulls I could not identify on the beaches and fishing piers as the sun sank in the west. For the rest of our drive back to Virginia (via Montgomery, Atlanta, and Spartanburg, SC) we really didn't stop for long enough to look for birds. At the Virginia welcome center along I-77 on Friday morning we saw a number of Common Grackles and American Robins, but not much else.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: [Caspian] Tern, E. Phoebe, Laughing Gull, Little Blue Heron, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Red-winged Blackbird, and in center, Yellow-rumped Warbler. (Jean Lafitte and Bayou Sauvage, February 24, 2021)
Many of the birds in the above montages, and even more, can be seen in separate photographs on the Wild Birds chronological (2021) page. It is intended to better accommodate the larger standard-sized bird photos -- 600 x 450 pixels, rather than 480 x 360 pixels, which used to be my standard size for bird photos. The increase in size reflects the improved power and quality of the new Canon PowerShot SX70 camera that I recently bought to replace the SX50 model of the same line that I had used for eight years. For the first three weeks of February, I hardly did any birding at all, since the old camera ceased to function on January 31. I hope the new camera is as durable as the old one was. So far I am very satisfied with the quality of the new camera, but there are still some things I need to learn about it.
March 12, 2021 [LINK / comment]
Major MLB roster changes, etc.
As spring training continues, the Nationals are now over .500, with a 4-3-3 record. I'm trying to get caught up with "hot stove" news about off-season acquisitions before the regular season starts (just three weeks from now!), so here goes.
In February the L.A. Dodgers signed former Cincinnati Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer (a free agent) to a three-year contract worth $102 million. He won the 2020 NL Cy Young award, He will be joining a pitching rotation that includes Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, and . It will be extremely hard for any team to beat the defending world champion Dodgers this year.
Bauer had also been negotiating with the New York Mets, who have been busy otherwise. Thanks to their new owner, Steve Cohen, the Mets acquired shortstop Francisco Lindor in an early January trade with the Cleveland Indians. (What is the team's new name?) He adds a lot of offensive firepower, which the Mets really needed.
Meanwhile, the AL Cy Young winner, Shane Bieber, is back on the field for Cleveland, after a bout with covid-19. He had only mild symptoms.
The New York Yankees acquired pitcher Corey Kluber in a one-year deal. After lengthy negotiations, they also signed second baseman D.J. LeMahieu to a six-year extension for $90 million. He was arguably the team's most valuable player last year, when they finished second in the AL East race. He will be 38 by the time the contract expires, however, so there is some risk of reduced performance.
In late December, the Chicago Cubs traded pitcher Yu Darvish to the San Diego Padres. Having parted ways with Kyle Schwarber and Jon Lester, it appears the Cubs are in rebuilding mode. The Padres, in contrast, continue to strengthen their already-solid lineup, and are likely to give the favored Dodgers some serious competition in the NL West this year.
In late January Philadelphia Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto signed a new five-year contract with the team, worth a total of $115.5 million. He had elected free agency in late October. The $23.1 million annual salary is the highest ever for a catcher, just barely. The Twins paid Joe Mauer $23 million a year from 2011 to 2018.
[Also in late January, the Toronto Blue Jays signed former Houston Astros outfielder George Springer to a six-year $150 million contract, instantly making them a team to be reckoned with. He is a classic home-run slugger, with ample postseason credentials to prove he can come through in the clutch.]
On February 1, the Colorado Rockies traded their star slugger Nolan Arenado (third baseman) to the St. Louis Cardinals for an assortment of young prospects. One of those teams will be a contender once again this year, and the other will not.
Finally, the Nationals released pitcher Jeremy Jeffress for unspecified "personal" reasons. He signed a minor league deal with the Nationals in late February after getting eight saves for the Chicago Cubs last year. Apparently, however, he has a history of domestic violence.
Bruce Orser sent me an image showing a very detailed profile of the Metrodome, and I realized that my previous diagram indicated that each level was three feet too short -- 10 feet rather than 13 feet. So, I went about making some minor corrections on the diagram profiles, and while I was at it, I decided to make the first-deck diagram more accurate and detailed. The suites in the mezzanine level are now 15 feet deep, rather than 18 feet as before. The space for refreshments, restrooms, and entry gates along the perimeter of the first-deck diagram is now differentiated from the (quite narrow) concourse. Evidently, excavation down to field level was done in some parts of the stadium, but not in others, hence the tranparent rendering of the parts below ground in the profiles. Other than the profiles, the other Metrodome diagrams were virtually unchanged.
And, for the record, I made a few tiny tweaks to the Truist Park diagrams -- specifically, the portion around the "Chop House" restaurant beyond right-center field.
Three days ago I wrote that Washington Nationals' star Ryan Zimmerman got his start in the minor leagues with the New Orleans Zephyrs (then the Nats' AAA affiliate), but my assumption was false. He actually went straight from the AA level to the majors.
March 16, 2021 [LINK / comment]
Spring break (early): road trip to New Orleans
Three weeks ago, Jacqueline and I took a lengthy road trip to the delightful cultural mecca called New Orleans. It was my first time in that city, other than a half hour aboard an airliner that made a stop at the airport there, and the very first time that either of us had set foot in Louisiana. I have now been to all of the "Lower 48" states of the Union! Traveling overland by automobile gave us the opportunity to explore the Deep South on our own, and we made the most of it. We ended up visiting nine of the eleven former Confederate States of America -- all except Texas and Arkansas -- but in one case (Florida) it was only on a "technicality."
Welcome signs from six of the eight states we visited -- all except Florida and North Carolina.
For most of the first day, we retraced the same route that we had taken to see the solar eclipse in August 2017. We drove straight down I-81 southwest into Tennessee, with no significant stops until we got to Chattanooga. Ever since my first visit there in 1997, I had wanted to see the view from Lookout Mountain, on the south side of the city. Luckily, the light conditions were ideal for taking pictures that day. At the Lookout Mountain visitor center there is an access point to see an underground attraction called Ruby Falls, but we learned that due to covid-19, one must purchase tickets online in advance. Maybe next time? There is also a Civil War battlefield nearby, but we just didn't have enough time to see it.
View of downtown Chattanooga from Lookout Mountain, the site of a battle during the Civil War.
The next morning there was a light rain as we drove into Birmingham, the biggest city in Alabama. We drove past steel mills (hence the city's nickname "Pittsburgh of the South"), and stopped briefly at Birmingham Southern College, where I once interviewed for a job. I then drove to see Rickwood Field, the oldest baseball stadium in America. It was built in 1910, two years before Fenway Park, and as the historical sign there says, some of baseball's greatest stars have played there, including Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Reggie Jackson. The surrounding neighborhood is rather poor, and we got our first up-close look at the impoverished conditions in which many southern black people live.
Our next stop was Tuscaloosa, where the University of Alabama is located. It so happens that the Alabama Crimson Tide just won the NCAA football championship two months ago, and I figured I ought to see the campus with my own eyes. By this time the rain had stopped and most of the clouds had lifted. Bryant-Denny Stadium is certainly impressive, and on the east side there is a series of statues of the past Alabama football coaches, such as "Bear" Bryant, as well as the present one, Nick Saban. Unfortunately, I was unable to maneuver my car into a good position to take a photo of the academic buildings at the university.
Bryant-Denny Stadium, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
I was surprised that the terrain in west-central Alabama was rolling, with many pine trees. There were many logging operations but hardly any sign of agriculture. As we drove further southwest into Mississippi, I was looking for signs of changing vegetation or flat fields suitable for planting cotton, but about the only thing I noticed was the increasing prevalence of mistletoe in the tops of bare trees. At the Mississippi visitor center I saw the brand-new state flag proudly displayed. (After a commission made its recommendation six months ago, the voters approved it in November; see www.wxxv25.com.)
Louisiana & New Orleans
Just after 3:00 we crossed the Pearl River into Louisiana, and at the visitor center there we finally saw vegetation appropriate to warmer climates: Spanish moss, Live Oak trees, and Palmettos. About an hour later we arrived at our first nature-related destination: the Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, located on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. We spent an hour or so there, and my March 10 birding blog post describes this visit in more detail.
The boardwalk at Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, located on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. On the far left is a Roseate Spoonbill -- the very same one that I photographed up close just a minute or so later.
We drove into New Orleans late in the afternoon, and arrived at our hotel (the Wyndham French Quarter) just as dusk was falling. This was one week after Mardi Gras, which was much more subdued this year due to the coronavirus. This trip was based in part on the availability of cheap accommodations, but the charge for valet parking was still very steep: $30 per night rather than the usual $40. As a major tourist destination, New Orleans has been hit especially hard in economic terms by the pandemic. Almost everyone we saw was wearing masks, and of course, we did too. After a brief rest in our hotel room, we took a look at the map to get our bearings, and then we hit the streets. We had dinner at a casual place called "Willies [sic] Chicken Shack," one of a chain of such establishments. The food was good (I had jambalaya), but the drinks were pricey -- I assume they are targeting the tourist crowd. It had been a long day, so we turned in early.
Scenes from New Orleans; CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Jackson Square, the (Mercedes Benz) Superdome, Canal Street and the Wyndham Hotel, and wrought-iron balconies at the corner of Royal Street and St. Peter Street in the French Quarter.
On Tuesday morning we wasted a lot of time trying to find a place that serves breakfast. In particular, we sought a particular local fried doughnut called beignets, mentioned in our tourist brochures. I was amazed that hardly any retail stores on Canal Street were open, and we were lucky that when we did find a place that they recommended the Cafe DuMonde -- located almost a mile away, in the French Quarter! So, after having walked a mile already, we headed east-northeast along Bourbon Street for several blocks, turning right on Toulouse Street (after which the Doobie Brothers' second album is named), and finally reaching Jackson Square at about 10:20. Andrew Jackson was the commander of U.S. forces that defended New Orleans against British invaders in January 1815. That was a strange battle, because the U.S. and Britain had already signed a peace treaty ending the "War of 1812." (I regret not finding time to visit that battlefield, situated on the east side of the city.) The coffee au lait and powdered sugar-coated beignets at Cafe DuMonde were just wonderful, well worth the effort to find the place. A historical placque there indicates that it began operations in the 1850s. After buying T-shirts and souvenirs in nearby shopes, we went strolling along the Mississippi River waterfront, which ordinarily would be jammed with tourists. Due to the coronavirus, however, neither the old-time riverboats nor the passenger ferry to Algiers point (dramatized in the 2006 Denzel Washington movie Deja Vu) were operating. Finally, we walked back up Canal Street and returned to our hotel to rest a while.
In the afternoon, we took a ride westward for about three miles along St. Charles Avenue on one of the famous streetcars. ("Desire" is the name of a neighborhood northeast of downtown, but no streetcar goes there any more.) We got off the streetcar at Audubon Park, which is full of Live Oak trees, Spanish moss, and palm trees, as well as birds. It was warm and sunny, and everyone was wearing short sleeves -- in February! Just to the north is the southern edge of the Tulane University campus, which is adjacent to Loyola University (of New Orleans). Before the Superdome was built in 1976, the Sugar Bowl used to be played in the very spacious Tulane Stadium, at the north end of the elongated campus. It was demolished in 1980. (See www.nola.com for some stadium history.) Nowadays, the Tulane football team plays in the much smaller Yulman Stadium, just north of where Tulane Stadium used to be.
Next we boarded the streetcar for a ride back toward the east, passing the historic Touro Synagogue -- not the more famous one in Newport, Rhode Island, however. We wanted to see the nicer residential areas of the city, so we got off to explore the Garden District on foot, and were amply rewarded. I soon came across an intriguing old structure and decided to take a photo. I was told by a friendly local resident that it was owned by pop music superstar Beyonce and her husband Jay Z. The neighborhoods were very friendly, with nice landscaping but very little grass. Land is at a premium in crowded New Orleans! One of the major attractions in the Garden District is Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, but we were too late for the guided tour that is given every afternoon. Voodoo superstitions are a big part of the local culture, reflecting the French creole (Haitian) influence.
This residence in the Garden District of New Orleans, on 1527 Harmony Street, is a converted former church.
Boarding the streetcar for a third and final time, we got off at Lee Circle, on the west edge of downtown. Perhaps not surprisingly, I discovered that the statue of Robert E. Lee that used to be there was removed a few years ago. Eventually the circle will be given a new name, but local leaders haven't decided on a new name yet. My final objective for the day was to see the Superdome, located about six blocks to the north. We were already very tired and thirsty, however, so we had to get soft drinks and snacks at a grocery store before resuming our trek. With bright afternoon sun behind me, and clear blue skies, it was a perfect stadium photo op for me! (New Orleans never got a major league baseball team, but the Superdome was built to accommodate baseball as well as football, and they used to play special college baseball games as well as MLB exhibition games there.) As the shadows lengthened, we walked several more blocks back to the hotel, stopping at Lafayette Square, which we had passed on the streetcar five hours before. It features statues of Henry Clay and Ben Franklin. Across the street is the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, of interest to students of politics and law.
In the evening, we dined at a Bourbon Street establishment called the Old N'awlins Cookery, and it was excellent: Jacqueline had the "taste of New Orleans" combo plate, I had crawfish etouffé, and we shared a scrumptious chocolate mousse dessert. Having walked over eight miles that day, I feel the indulgence was entirely justified. The biggest disappointment was not hearing any local Dixieland or zydeco music in any of the Bourbon Street bars, just one with rock music. And so, after shopping for a few more items in some of the tourist-oriented places, we returned to the hotel and slept like logs.
The skies on Wednesday morning were quite cloudy as we checked out of the hotel and drove across the bridge to Algiers, a suburb full of industries and port facilities. We headed west then south for several miles, gradually leaving behind and entering genuine bayou country. What is a "bayou"? A stagnant or slow-moving inlet surrounded by swampy land. The road began ascending a very high bridge over a ship canal (probably the Intra-coastal Waterway), and then made a sharp turn at the bottom of the south end; it was a veritable "bridge to nowhere"! After a couple more miles we arrived in the town of Jean Lafitte, named for the French "privateer" (kind of like a pirate) who helped Andrew Jackson fight the British in the War of 1812, as mentioned above. We found the destination and went for a walk around the boardwalk, a little over a mile. Aside from the birds, the biggest attraction of the day were the three alligators we saw in the bayou. It was the first time Jacqueline had seen alligators!
Green Anole, Painted Turtle, snail, and American Alligator at the Jean Lafitte Wetland Trace, part of the Barataria Preserve.
Having fallen behind schedule, we drove quickly back through New Orleans without making any stops until we reached Bayou Sauvage, a nature area about 15 miles northeast of the city. The road to get there takes you through some economically distressed areas, with garbage, discarded mattresses, and abandoned houses. There was an old amusement park, with a roller coaster and other rides falling into disrepair. Since we drove past the low-lying Ninth Ward, where the flooding in 2005 was the worst, this was the only time we saw direct evidence of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.
The return trip
We then said goodbye to Louisiana and headed east on Interstate 10. Almost as soon as we entered Mississippi, an amazing sight caught our eye: a large Saturn V first stage rocket on display (horizontally) just to our right! We took the next exit in hopes of seeing it, but were disappointed that the visitor center was closed due to the coronavirus. The John C. Stennis Space Center, a few miles to the north, is where NASA assembles rockets that are then put on barges and shipped to Cape Canaveral in Florida, to be launched. Late in the afternoon we took a slight detour south so as to see the Gulf of Mexico -- the first time for both of us. The white sand beaches on the Mississippi coast are very attractive, and I remembered that Pass Christian (which appears very prosperous) is the home town of ABC's "Good Morning America" co-host Robin Roberts. We saw a lot of shrimping boats, reminding me of the movie Forrest Gump, and later on, some distant large cranes for handling cargo. At a casino and large dock complex in the city of Gulfport we turned left (north), and soon got stuck in a terrible traffic jam, wasting over a half hour before we got back on Interstate 10 eastbound. We spent the night near Mobile, Alabama, where we had a nice dinner at Wintzell's Oyster House.
Early on Thursday, February 25 we decided to forego my original plan of driving straight east through northern Florida to the Atlantic coast (way too ambitious), and instead headed northeast along I-65. But first I took a brief detour through the town of Perdido (which means "lost" in Spanish, ominously) for a sly and perhaps frivolous purpose. I drove south on Pineville Road and soon found Jones Road, which coincides with the Florida-Alabama state line for a couple miles. I backed into the driveway of a house on the Florida side, and just for the record I took a photo of a neighboring house at 8371 Jones Road, McDavid, Florida. It was quite cloudy during the one minute or so that we were in Florida, contradicting the "Sunshine State" moniker. The last time I was in Florida during spring training (March 2017) I actually saw a baseball game; this time I wasn't even close. Then I drove to nearby Atmore, Alabama, and we resumed our northeasterly course.
As we approached the capital city of Montgomery just before noon, I noticed a Hyundai automobile manufacturing plant, as well as many billboards for lawyers. Litigation seems to be one of the biggest businesses in Alabama. We exited the Interstate in Montgomery to get gas, and so that I could see the state capitol building as well as historical sites related to the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.
The Alabama State Capitol, west side. (This photo has been retouched for the sake of lateral balance.)
It so happens that a historic church is located within a block of the Capitol building: Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached from 1954 until 1961. (It was then that he moved to Atlanta, the city where he was born.) As fate would have it, a woman named Rosa Parks defied the segregation rules in the Montgomery city buses in December 1955, and King came to her defense. In back of the church is the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Legacy Center, and across the street from it is the Montgomery Civil Rights Memorial, the front side of which features an engraved quotation from a speech King made when he began the civil rights movement:
Until justice rolls down like waters
and righteousness like a mighty stream
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached from 1954 until 1961.
Perhaps too hastily, we departed Montgomery and headed east on I-85. In the early afternoon we crossed the Chattahoochee River into Georgia, and about 90 minutes later arrived in the Atlanta metropolitan area, where we experienced major traffic delays on the I-285 bypass west of the city. Actually, this worked out to my advantage, as I had been planning to get off the Interstate anyway, so this gave me the perfect excuse to do so. I drove on various suburban thoroughfares in Cobb County, trying to bypass the clogged bypass. As described in my March 9 baseball blog post, Jacqueline was completely surprised when Truist Park (the new home of the Atlanta Braves) suddenly came into view. Another successful sly maneuver on the road by yours truly!
Later in the afternoon, we crossed a reservoir into South Carolina, saw the road signs pointing to Clemson University (Alabama football's arch-rival) and soon realized that we would have to stop for the night. We found a motel in Spartanburg, and had a nice dinner at Willy [sic] Tacos, which serves fancy Mexican. (It was odd that two eating establishments during our trip were named for a guy named "Willy," but in both cases the names use an incorrect form of the possessive.)
We got going early on Friday morning, and soon passed the prominent landmark Kings Mountain, where a Revolutionary War battle was fought. My grandparents on my mother's side once lived in the nearby town of Kings Mountain, NC. Otherwise the terrain in that part of North Carolina was quite flat. We approached the city of Charlotte but took the exit onto I-77 north before reaching it. A couple hours later we crossed the state line into the Old Dominion of Virginia, and after resting a while at the welcome center, we began a large ascent across a mountain -- the Blue Ridge! We had to refill the gas tank, and the stop at that location was fortuitious because I learned that that was the birthplace of Stephen F. Austin, one of the leaders of the movement for Texas independence in 1836! The rest of the trip northeast along I-81 past Christiansburg, Roanoke, and Lexington was familiar and uneventful. After nearly a week on the road, there was still snow on the mountains and in some shady spots. It was a melancholy sight to behold, but the memories of the warm and wonderful time we spent in New Orleans served as a balm, and will continue to do so for a long time to come...
The Chronological photo gallery (2021) page includes the above photos, and many, many more. As noted above, separate recent blog posts featured narratives and photos of baseball stadiums (March 9) and wild birds (March 10).
March 29, 2021 [LINK / comment]
Spring training comes to a close
Most major league teams concluded their spring training games today, and the remaining ones (14) will do so tomorrow. The Washington Nationals and Houston Astros tied 2-2 in their final practice game, in the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, which they share with each other. It was the sixth time the "room mate" teams have played each other this spring: the Astros won three times, the Nats won once, and twice they tied. The Nationals finished with a 10-9-5 record, which doesn't really mean very much, of course.
What does mean something is that Ryan Zimmerman hit six home runs in spring training, only two behind the leaders Joc Pederson and Corey Seager -- both of whom had almost twice as many at-bats as did Zimmerman (27). His 15 RBIs were likewise close behind the leader Joc Pederson (with 19), but his amazing batting average of .481 can't really be compared with the other guys because he had too few at-bats to qualify statistically. At any rate, Ryan is definitely on a roll! Not only that, the Nats' other first baseman, newly-acquired Josh Bell, matched Zimmerman in the home run and RBI departments, and finished third among major leaguers with a .383 batting average! (Bell had 47 at-bats, which did qualify.)
With overloaded slugging power at first base, the Nationals are in a quandary. Can Bell be shifted to second base? It appears probable that the expected second baseman Starlin Castro will start the regular season at third base, because the young Carter Kieboom was given a minor league assignment in Rochester after failing to meet expectations in spring training. His batting average was only .133, and he batted in just one run. Trea Turner of course will be at shortstop, but he had a mediocre spring trainning as well. Utility man Josh Harrison and Hernan Perez are the alternative second baseman. Luis Garcia has experience there as well, but he has been optioned to the Nat's Rochester team.
The other good news for the Nationals is there new outfielder, Kyle Schwarber, who seems to be returning to his hot slugging ways from the years preceding 2020. He had four homers, eight RBIs, and batted a respectable .250 during spring training. Along with superstar-in-the-making Juan Soto (nursing a minor injury) and Victor Robles, the Nats' outfield looks to be in good shape this year. Andrew Stevenson provides solid backup if the need arises.
Pitching is a big question mark for the Nationals this year. Both Max Scherzer (who will start against the Mets on Opening Day this Thursday) and Stephen Strasburg have been dealing with ailments, pitching very effectively, up to a point. The two left-handers, Patrick Corbin and Jon Lester (the latter newly acquired) have pitched well enough in spring training, but much remains to be seen. Joe Ross will start the season as the number five pitcher, and he at least seems to have improved. On the other hand, the expensive new closing pitcher, Brad Hand, has an ERA of 12.15 this spring -- just awful. He was supposed to provide stability to the Nats' much-maligned bullpen, and much is expected of him in the regular season.
Although I am fairly confident that the Nats will make the postseason this year, given the challenges from the Braves and the newly-improved Mets, the NL East Division title is far from certain. After I have studied the other teams more carefully, I may make a prediction.
Busch Stadium II update
I have revised the Busch Stadium II diagrams, after reminding myself of the minor change that was made around the year 2000, when an extra row of seats was added in front of the loge level near the left field and right field corners. That row overhung the playing field, so I used a different color to call attention to that. One thing led to another, and I decided to render the overall curvature of the grandstand more accurately. The front of the loge level is now circular for the entire distance along which the retractable part of the lower deck traverses. (I should have paid more explicit attention to that before; I had a similar issue in rendering the Rogers Centre diagrams.) The ramps are now several feet wider than they were in the previous (2019) diagrams, and this affects the profile as well as the top-down diagrams. Several other minor details were corrected as well, and the arches that line the roof are now rendered more accurately than before. As usual, you can compare the new and old versions by clicking on the diagram on that page.
NOTE: Someone asked me about the bright green line parallel to the first base line in the 1966 diagram, but the answer to that mystery can be found in the text on the Busch Stadium II page. When the field was grass in the early years (1960s), there was a thin strip of artificial turf that concealed an underground roll of tarpaulin. It's the same thing that Forbes Field had in its latter years, but on the opposite side of the diamond.