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You Can Learn a Lot By Watching – Stadium Tour

August 14, 2011

Although I’ve been back for almost a week now from my vacation, a minor health issue and other general catching up has kept me from posting. Daily MILB Thoughts will resume shortly. For now though, I would like to take a few steps back (or forward) and look at the different ballparks in  which I’ve had the pleasure of viewing a game.

Each MLB stadium is unique, even the ones commonly derided as cookie-cutter. In some cases, it’s the field of play which sets the stadium apart, in others it is the casing and always, it is in the attendees. I will start this journey looking at the the defunct stadia and move my way up to the fields of today.

Gone and Trying Not to Forget

Nearly 25 years ago, my Mother took my younger brother and I to our first ever baseball game at the old Exhibition Stadium. If I could remember more about the day, I could probably find the exact date on Retrosheet, but what I can remember is that the CNE was going, it was day time, it was not a Sunday and the Blue Jays played the California Angels. On second thought, I can locate the game. The only game that fits those criteria took place on September 2,1987 the Blue Jays overcame a rough start by Dave Stieb to defeat the Angels 7-6. It was a Wednesday afternoon. We went to the Ex afterwards. I went to many other games at the Ex in the next season and a half, seeing Nolan Ryan spin a 1-hitter less than 2 months before the team migrated into what was then call the SkyDome. The most thrilling game of my life came in between, as Tony Fernandez led two last-gasp comebacks against the powerhouse Oakland Athletics on July 3, 1988, wiping away three Jose Canseco blasts before falling to a 16th inning drive by Mark McGwire. Unfortunately, Fernandez did not get to bat in the bottom half of the 16th. Back then, my Father worked with someone who would occasionally give him a few seats along the 3rd base side, around 30 rows up. I was young and thrilled to be there. In retrospect, looking at old pictures of the stadium, it was a bit of a joke, with the outfield bleachers fading away from the game, a true sign of the stadium’s original purpose as a football stadium.

In 1995, as a nation of baseball lovers were catching their breaths as the game returned from a damaging strike that wiped out the previous season without crowning a champion, a relative from New Jersey invited me to spend a few weeks in July at his home, doing odd jobs around his warehouses, getting to know his grandchildren and seeing the sights. Awesomely, the sights included visits to both of New York’s stadia. First came an afternoon game at Old Yankee Stadium II on July 19. My memories of the stadium and the game all harken back to the Exhibition Stadium. The stadium itself seemed simple in its design, and after a few years of the then-modern SkyDome, I was nostalgic for the Ex. Beyond that, the great Tony Fernandez played a leading role in this game, hitting a 3rd inning home run to tie the game at one and herald a 4-run inning by the Yankees.

Less than two weeks later, on July 31, we went to Shea, a night game that saw former phenom Bill Pulsipher go the distance to beat the visiting Pirates 4-1. The Pirates were already a losing team, but not yet historically putrid. Down 1-0 in the 6th, Rico Brogna took Steve Parris deep to give the Mets a 2-1 lead that would not be relinquished. In the top of the 3rd, the same Parris singled, marking the first time I had ever seen a pitcher swing a bat in live-game action. What can I say about Shea? It made me think of a toilet bowl with stands rising in a 75% circle around the field. Every time a plane would fly overhead (at least 3 times on that night), it would flush out all other ball game noise. I will touch on the New Yankee Stadium later on, and I have not yet been to new Citi Field, but it can only be an improvement.

Baseball in the Rust Belt

Two summers ago, my younger brother and I set out on a road trip to see old teams play baseball in new stadia. To our luck, in one long weekend, the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers were all playing at home. Leaving Toronto on Saturday morning, we beat the heavy traffic that had the road between Oakville and St. Catharines at a practical standstill and made into Pittsburgh with little time to spare to watch the Pirates take on the visiting Washington Nationals. It was Saturday, August 1. It was a classic pitcher’s matchup pitting Craig Stammen (career K/9 of  5.1) against Virgil Vasquez. This would be the last start of Vasquez’ career. He allowed 13 baserunners in 5 innings (but only 2 runs) and was demoted after the game and, while he returned to the Pirates for September, he was only used out of the bullpen. He hasn’t been back to the Majors since. The approach to PNC Park hinted at the glory of the stadium, as you have to traverse the river before being greeted by a bronzed Roberto Clemente. Just like 14 years earlier, the Pirates were a bad team without much to recommend its players. With one exception. Less than two months prior, Andrew McCutchen made his long-awaited debut and was now rounding into form with an OPS around .780. He looked good, but the real buzz was yet to come. In this game, as Washington’s lone star, Ryan Zimmerman went 3-4, 2B, RBI, 2 R, McCutchen had a signature game. In addition to a couple of highlight reel catches in CF, McCutchen went 4-6, with 3 home runs, each one hit farther than the last. In retrospect, I’m not sure if the highlight of the game was McCutchen, or the actual stadium. We sat in the infield, on the third base side, looking towards the outfield, the river and the city behind it. PNC Park is an absolutely marvelous place to sit back with a Primanti Brothers’ sandwich, a plastic cup of Yuengling and watch baseball. Since that night, I have quietly rooted for the Pirates, hoping that success will bring more people to the park more often.

After spending that night in Pittsburgh, my brother and I left town early the next morning for our next appointment, a Sunday afternoon game at Progressive Field between the Cleveland Indians and the visiting Detroit Tigers. For this game, we got bleacher seats, right around here, sitting just to the right of a still-healthy Grady Sizemore. A newly healthy Carl Pavano was pitching for the Indians against a yet-to-be-famous Armando Galarraga for the Tigers. The stadium itself was nice, with the nicest touch being the Heritage Park in CF, where the great moments in team history have been commemorated in bronze. Having driven in less than an hour before game time and expecting to leave immediately afterwards for another long drive, I was limiting my beer intake to a single drink. Between the unrelenting sun, the too-soft sausage and a Mountain Dew, I could not enjoy the final few innings of a home team blow-out (11-1) final score. Unfortunately, the game ended without the Stadium making any lasting impression on me.

We woke up the next morning in Ann Arbor, Michigan. After brunch at Zingerman’s, we got to Comerica Park plenty early, looking to see if the Tigers would fare better at home than was possible the day before in Cleveland. Arriving early gave us a chance to check out the park in all its glory, watching batting practice from the outfield seats and hoping the rain would hold off. Comerica is more spacious than either PNC or Progressive, but well apportioned with idiosyncracies, such as low-sloping bleachers in left and right fields and fountains above the green batter’s eye in CF. Like PNC, anyone seated in the infield got a great view of the once magestic city of Detroit behind the stadium. I truly believe that any open stadium that does not take advantage of its surroundings is wasting something wonderful. On the field, I was excited at seeing young Orioles catcher, Matt Wieters, who had debuted only days before McCutchen. But beyond that, I like pitching. And finally – finally – this game was being started by an ace, in Justin Verlander. The game began very ominously for Verlander and the Tigers. The Orioles leadoff batter, Brian Roberts homered and five of the next six batters reached on three singles and two doubles. In total, five runs had scored. And that was it. From that point on, Verlander was untouchable. Over 7 more innings, he allowed only four more baserunners, on three singles and a walk. He was throwing around 98mph in the 8th. The heralded Wieters had the best damn 0-4 I’d ever seen, which each at-bat ended in a hard-hit linedrives. Meanwhile, the Tigers slowly chipped back into the game, with three in the bottom of the 1st, and single runs in the 4th and 5th. The game entered the bottom of the 9th tied at 5-5. The local crowd muttered in discontent as flammable Fernando Rodney took over for Verlander in the top of the inning, but three quick outs brought the top of the order to the plate. Curtis Granderson went down looking. Placido Polanco grounded out to 2B. Clete Thomas came to the plate. He fouled off a fastball, watched a wide curve to even the count and then fouled off another heater to get the count to 1-2. Danys Baez went back to his fastball and unfortunate Clete Thomas drove the ball over the wall in centre field to end the game in grand style. As of this writing, Thomas has not hit another MLB home run. He spent most of 2010 injured with a hamstring problem and all of this season in AAA. In summary, a beautiful place for baseball, surrounded by knowledgeable and passionate fans.

In the interest of brevity (how often am I really interested in brevity?) I will split this post in two and discuss Rogers, Wrigley, Fenway and more later.

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