…Continued from the previous post.
As enjoyable as watching opening round coverage of the NCAA Tournament is, Kels and I had no remorse about leaving March Madness behind in Scottsdale’s Fox Sports Grill at 3:45 PM for the 7:05 PM first pitch that would begin Event #100 – a Spring Training game between the Los Angeles Angels and the San Francisco Giants. After all, we had almost ten miles to travel.
Twenty minutes later we pulled into a free parking lot adjacent to Scottsdale Stadium – an absolute gem of an old-fashioned downtown ballpark. And we were by no means alone in our eagerness. It would be another 45 minutes until the gates would even open, but already there were hundreds of people milling around, even though all 11,622 tickets had long since been sold. These people, like us, just wanted to get inside and drink up the atmosphere as soon as possible.
Ask any sports fan when Spring really begins and they’ll reply without hesitation: The day that pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training. No matter where you live, from the snowiest of Frost Belt towns to the warmest Sun Belt city, the day that baseball’s pre-season camps open is always the most reliable harbinger of hope. And what is Spring anyway, if not the Official Sponsor of Hope?
When Spring Training begins, every team is a potential World Series champ. Yes, even the Pittsburgh Pirates! OK, that’s patently ridiculous, but see how easily the concept can sweep you away?
With that in mind, what better place to end my journey than at the home office of Renewal?
Minneapolis has a great sports entertainment district, with tons of bars and restaurants within easy walking distance of the Viking’s Metrodome and the NBA Timberwolve’s Target Center. It makes for a safe and lively destination environment. So it stands to reason that when building a new ballpark, the Minnesota Twins had three good reasons for shoehorning Target Field into a very challenging piece of real estate. Location, location, location.
The decision to build upon this smallish parcel of land has its consequences though. Building a stadium “up” rather than “out” can make for a claustrophobia-inducing environment, as almost everywhere you go in Target Field you’re under some sort of overhang. Sometimes deep under that overhang, as is the case on the main concourse. And with thousands of people crowded into this cave-like area, the pre-game atmosphere on a warm evening can get a little…sauna-esque.
So as the ladies in the South might say, I was “misting” by the time I escaped the below-decks scrum and settled into Section V – home for the next nine innings of my life. As I sat there taking in the sights and sounds though, it troubled me to admit that the Target Field Kool-Aid that I had come to sample was not yet that easy to swallow.
Billed as the Taj Mahal of baseball stadiums when it opened in April, it had drawn this Sports Fan like a moth to a flame. Distressingly however, it had thus far failed to impress.
In yesterday’s post I described the “Target Field Shuffle” and “Find The Hidden Section” pre-game activities, but in the grand scheme of things those were momentary annoyances. I still had a mind to fall in love with this ballpark.
“It’s not you, it’s me”, I told the stadium. “After I get a little something to eat I’m sure I’ll feel better.” And so I ate.
I didn’t feel better.
Maybe it was because I was fresh from the Little League World Series at Williamsport, where a family of five could eat for a week on $23.75, but it struck me that the Target Field concession prices were a little on the high side. I had a steak sandwich which was the culinary equivalent of a routine fly ball, but which set me back $10.50. And it wasn’t like I had a lot of lower-cost alternatives. Even the lowly hot dog was extravagantly priced.
Much has been made in the sports biz press of the wide variety of local delicacies available at the new ballpark. The trendy item that had them lined up like Soviet-era Russians was the Kramarczuk sausage, which I would’ve liked to try but wasn’t willing to invest the required half-inning in line. I could’ve scored a walleye-on-a-stick without much wait, but…well, I couldn’t get my mind to divorce itself from the visual image of a fish popsicle. For 11 bucks.
At least part of the concept was to allow visitors to get a true taste of Minnesota cuisine while at Target Field. But I returned to my seat hoping that there are those in the Twin Cities with a more discriminating palate. Purely as a public service, I wanted to round up my Section V brethren and fly them to San Diego, where the food selection at Petco Park would no doubt leave them speechless in comparison.
Detroit was leading the Twins 2-0 in the top of the second inning when a sharp-looking group of young professionals arrived in Section V, setting off a domino effect of people relocating to the actual seats that they had purchased. Orchestrating this activity was a dark-haired beauty named Marissa, who I later discovered was there hosting a little client baseball outing. She wound up sitting in the seat next to mine.
Now it’s never a bad thing to find yourself seated next to a pretty girl, but here’s the kicker. As soon as she was settled she turned to me and asked “How did the Tigers score their runs?” She was a Fan – and proved to be a very knowledgeable one at that. Sure she was here on business on this night, but she knew her baseball inside and out. “But I’m a bad Minnesotan”, she confessed. “I’m a Yankees fan.”
After we had chatted a bit about baseball, I popped the burning question on the minds of sports fans throughout the universe: How do Minnesota residents truly feel about Brett Favre?
In a nutshell…they had grown as weary of the “Will Brett Be Back?” story as the rest of us. Which leaves ESPN programmers as the only people in America who felt the drama to be newsworthy. Proving once and for all that they really need to get out more.
I told Marissa a little about my reason for being there and solicited her help. I shared with her that thus far I had discovered only reasons NOT to love Target Field, and I desperately wanted to deliver a balanced report. A little help with the good stuff? Please?
“The women’s bathrooms are great!” was the immediate and enthusiastic reply. Well…I was looking for something a little bit more relevant to my own interests, but OK, we were getting somewhere.
She described how nice it was to finally see baseball outside, and that she had yet to watch a game from a seat that didn’t offer a great view of the field. But she was a little disappointed that they didn’t go the extra distance to add a retractable roof to the stadium. “I’m from here,” she said, “And there’s no way I’m going to pay to sit and freeze during a late October playoff game. Not even against the Yankees.”
She did appreciate all of the extra concession alternatives though (her suggestion of a locally-brewed Summit Extra Pale Ale turned out to be a definite winner), and while she had yet to visit the Budweiser Roof Deck high above the left field corner, she loved the idea that it could be rented out for private parties. And there are those great bathrooms…
But in searching for the single word that best described Target Field…“Cramped?” said Marissa. Thank you. And no, that doesn’t make you a bad Minnesotan.
While we chatted, the game was flying by. Detroit had taken an early 3-0 lead and the Twins had responded meekly. Then in the bottom of the 6th inning, the hugely popular All-Star Joe Mauer got things rolling with a double. Three base hits later the lead had been cut to 3-2.
The Twin’s momentum carried through into the bottom of the 7th, although this time it was more a case of taking advantage of Tiger pitching gifts. Two walks and two hit batsmen brought the tying run home, and then Delmon Young singled in Mauer from third with the go-ahead run.
Section V was rocking, along with the rest of Target Field. My new friends ordered another round of beers from one of the many good-natured vendors that came to call, and their energy became infectious.
By the time the game ended with a 4-3 Twins win, and I spilled out onto the sidewalk to a sultry city night, I still couldn’t say that I was in love with Target Field. But we were definitely dating.
Minneapolis needs a better press agent. It’s not that there’s a lot of negative information out there about this gleaming metropolitan area. It’s that there’s pretty much no information out there. I’m sure that there is a Chamber of Commerce, a Convention & Visitors Bureau and a Tourism organization of some sort. But the day-to-day, nuts and bolts work of creating an image for Minneapolis? Not so much. Come to think about it, I’ve read much more over the years about the resurrection of St. Paul, the smaller of the Twin Cities.
But each time my travels bring me to Minneapolis it’s almost like I’m seeing the city for the first time. And each time I like it. In fact, there’s next to nothing not to like – well except for that six month winter thing-y. “I have to come here more often”, I say to myself. But then my visit concludes, I get on a plane and inevitably fail to think about Minneapolis again until business brings me back.
Fortunately there is an easy solution to this PR gap. If anyone in a position of power in Minneapolis is reading this, I urge you to seek out the publicist for Target Field and pay them whatever they ask to take on the city as a client.
I say this because nowhere in the annals of sports journalism has one building received so many fawning accolades as has Target Field – the uncontested ultimate baseball park. The Wall St. Journal, USA Today, TWO feature stories in Sports Business Journal, yadayadayada.
“I must make the pilgrimage to pay homage”, I say to myself. “And besides, I seem to remember that Minneapolis is a pretty nice city.”
Truth be told, this trip is a little non-standard for the “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Tour. I don’t usually go to an event to cover a building. They don’t move around a lot, and in general have very little to say. There’s not much thrill of victory or agony of defeat to be observed among steel, bricks and mortar.
So I came. I saw. I shrugged.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s a nice ballpark, replete with plenty of modern amenities. But to be honest, it wasn’t the nicest baseball stadium I’ve visited this year (that would be San Diego’s Petco Park). Or even the second (that would be Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park). It is definitely nicer than Dodger Stadium though! But then again, so is pretty much every ballpark that was built after the debut of Camden Yards. Including many minor league stadiums.
And Target Field has some downright healthy flaws. One of which is the ability to circumnavigate the park. There are all kinds of angles to the ballpark, which at first blush is kind of cool. Things jut out from other things in ways that are definitely unique and visually stimulating. Entire sections remind me of bay windows or dormers that have been attached to the façade of a house.
The byproduct of that however, is that only the main concourse level of the stadium entirely circles the inside of the ballpark. All other levels and half-levels are self-contained corridors, and if you don’t know exactly where you’re going you wind up at a dead end. And it’s not like there are ramps or escalators at the ends of all those corridors to take you to the level above or below you. You must backtrack until you find a way out – which in my case was usually a stairwell secured by a closed door.
On one occasion, I entered a stairwell in which I found myself to be the only person. Feeling like I must have blundered into an emergency exit, I was prepared for a full body cavity search when I exited at the main concourse level. “No problem”, said the person stationed there when I emerged. Well, ahem…actually there is a problem when a primary means of egress is basically invisible to the 35,000 fans currently in the stadium.
My primary motivation for doing pre-game maze negotiation work on the upper levels of Target Field is that I got tired of shuffling along the main concourse. Much was written about the width of that concourse, and I suppose that if I saw it when the ballpark was empty I’d think it was huge as well.
But when virtually everyone in attendance has to walk along that concourse to get to the means of entry to their own upper level section, it gets pretty clogged. Either Minnesotans actually prefer to amble along at 1 ½ mph, or Target Field has a bottleneck problem.
I had another reason for doing the up/down navigation of Target Field though. I had no idea where my seat was.
I knew that it was somewhere down the left field line, and that it was in Row 6 of a Section named simply “V”. Being the veteran ballpark navigator that I am, I foresaw no problem with finding Section V. Except that all of the directional signage had a nasty habit of pointing to places with numbers. Sections 114 -120, this way. Sections 329 – 334, that way. But Section V?
Thinking that they were going for a Roman numeral, Super Bowl kind of thing, I began to wonder if maybe I was actually sitting in Section 5. But after consultative sessions with two separate Target Field employees I found Section V. It was just above Section 126 and kind of diagonally below Section 327 – you know, right where you’d expect it to be.
When finally I got to my destination, it was a relief to settle down into my seat and gaze out across the field…at the right field foul pole. Twins people – really. You couldn’t sacrifice just a couple of seats in order to angle the rest of the row toward the diamond?
But at least I had an actual seat. As I looked down into the leftfield grandstands I noticed that several sections consisted of merely rows of aluminum benches with numbered seats. Because…?
I desperately needed some perspective. Granted my expectations were sky-high, but thus far this experience hadn’t remotely delivered. I needed to focus on the positive. Fortunately, Marissa was on her way.
To be continued…
John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” is playing on the P.A. system. I’m sitting in the grandstand at an internationally recognized and beloved sporting event. I’ve parked, secured admission and had a little lunch in preparation for the Little League World Series International Championship game. Total cost thus far? Let me see…parking…plus ticket…add in a hot dog and a Powerade…total the column, carry the remainder…OK, if my math is correct, that comes out to a grand total of $4.50.
I haven’t even seen a pitch yet and this is already one of the best events on the “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Tour schedule to date. But then again, any day that starts with meeting a sportscasting legend certainly does get things rolling in the right direction.
It’s funny how planets align sometimes. Friend and former Futures Tour tournament director Howard Storck just happened to be travelling through Pennsylvania at the same time as I, he on his way to New York. And he was also stopping in Williamsport – not to see the LLWS, but to visit with a college roommate. Len Berman. Yes that Len Berman, of NBC Sports, The Today Show and New York City’s WNBC-TV.
Berman was in Williamsport as part of a tour to promote his latest book The 25 Greatest Baseball Players Of All Time. And all I had to do to meet him was sacrifice several hours of sleep and track down the location of the Williamsport Public Library on Saturday morning. Done and done.
A gracious guy with a very dry wit, Berman patiently explained to me that the reason that no Los Angeles Angels were on his list was that…well, they’ve never had any great players of the homegrown variety. Ouch. But point well taken.
Having recovered from that sting, all was right with my world as I sat at the far end of the right field grandstand in Howard J. Lamade Stadium, awaiting the start of the game between Japan and Taiwan. Even if I did have anything to complain about, it felt vaguely un-American to even entertain the notion.
I even succumbed to feeling kindly about the between-inning “entertainment”, which usually involved Dugout – a mascot dressed in a bear costume that danced and mugged his way through each game. I’m not a big mascot fan, but as mascots go, Dugout was impressive in his energy level, if nothing else.
One particular bit had him dressed up as a prizefighter, shadow-boxing to the theme song from Rocky for the full interminable duration of a TV timeout. Now I know I was only a couple hours away from Philadelphia, where a recent poll showed that 104.6% of the population believes that Rocky was an actual person, but please – that was a looooong time ago.
And speaking of time, I’m sure that Dugout joined me in wondering if that Rocky bit would ever be over. If it was left solely up to ESPN, they surely would have run four more commercials, after which time they would’ve had to drag Dugout’s spent carcass off on a stretcher, accompanied by at least two intravenous fluid feeds.
As for the International Championship game itself, most of the action came early. Japan made good use of the only hit they mustered over the first five innings and scratched out a run in the bottom of the first inning. Taiwan responded in kind in the top of the second, with two runs scored on three of the only four hits they recorded in the game. After that it was a pitcher’s duel, supported by excellent defense on both sides. Taiwan in fact turned two inning-ending double plays with major-league type crispness.
Down to their last at-bat, Japan sandwiched two singles around Taiwan’s only error of the game and managed to send the game into extra innings at 2-2. Then in the bottom of the 7th inning, a single, a wild pitch and a fielder’s choice set the stage for a game-winning single by Japan’s Ryo Motegi.
Just like that, the opportunistic Japanese had claimed the International Championship. Taiwan, the prohibitive favorite due to a prodigious offense that in one game alone had produced 24 runs, was relegated to Sunday’s consolation game.
The United States Championship game pitted a team from the Houston area – Pearland, Texas to be exact – against the Waipio All-Stars from Waipahu, Hawaii on the island of O’ahu. Remarkably, Waipio had won the Little League World Series title in 2008 and was now in a position to do so again – but with an entirely different roster. What were the chances?
Hawaii was in a tough position this time around. Little League rules put limitations on the number of pitches that a young pitcher can throw on a given day or series of days. Needing to play an extra game to compensate for a first-game loss in the double-elimination tournament had used up Hawaii’s front-line pitching ranks. So in this game for all the U.S. marbles, the ball was handed to 5’1” lefty Ezra Heleski – normally a starting outfielder – with the hopes that he could go as far as possible with his allotted 85 pitches. As it turned out, that didn’t have to be too far.
The LLWS employs a “Mercy Rule”, which states that, if one team leads by at least 10 runs after the trailing team has completed four innings of at-bats, the game is officially concluded. When Hawaii jumped out to an early 7-0 lead, the only question remaining was whether Heleski could finish the game before tossing his 85th and final pitch, thus saving what was left of a bullpen for the next day’s World Championship contest. He left the mound after five innings with a scant 14 pitches available for the job.
It became a moot point however, as in the bottom of the 5th, Hawaii scored three runs to extend their lead to 10-0 and trigger the Mercy Rule.
I felt somewhat uneasy as I watched this unfold. Given that Texas had mustered just two hits and Hawaii was running roughshod on the bases, it was pretty obvious to all in attendance that the eventual outcome of the game was not in doubt.
So when Hawaii pushed the issue in pursuit of a Mercy Rule win, I couldn’t decide whether I was witnessing a case of questionable sportsmanship. That thought process was exacerbated when Hawaii scored their 10th run as a result of yet another Texas miscue – a wild pitch – and jubilantly celebrated on the field.
If this game had been on any other level I wouldn’t have given this a second thought, but these are just 12 and 13-year old kids. And being embarrassed on national television can’t possibly have rolled right off their backs.
But then again, it’s been a long time since I was 12. And since I’m pretty sure that just being on national television would have pushed me perilously close to wetting my pants, maybe I’m not the right person to comment on this.
Back when I was kid, when we played the game with stuffed brontosaurus skins and woolly mammoth tusks, there was a single three-syllable word that encapsulated all of my fondest baseball dreams: Williamsport.
I barely knew that Williamsport was an actual place, let alone how to find it on a map. It was more like a concept whose existence you took on faith. Much like Valhalla to ancient warriors.
You went there only if you persevered, played your absolute best, and had the gods of baseball smiling down on you at just the right time. Every kid that ever played Little League knew that each August, just one All-Star team from each of four U.S. regions (now eight regions) was able to play their way to Williamsport, Pennsylvania and the Little League World Series.
One year, an All-Star team from South Windsor, the town right next to mine, went on a magical mid-Summer streak and wound up winning the East Regional, thus earning an invitation to Williamsport. The members of that team became local legends – attaining a level of celebrity almost Paris Hilton-esque, if you can even remotely process that thought.
When we played a midget football game against South Windsor that Fall, I could barely wait until the game was over so that I could meet those conquering heroes. During the postgame handshake I uttered the magic words: “Tell us about Williamsport”.
And they did, as my friends and I listened slack-jawed. We almost had to be dragged onto the buses that would take us back to our comparatively menial existences. The legend grew.
I’m positive that the Little League World Series holds the same level of enchantment for millions of others of us “graduates”, as Little League Baseball, Incorporated likes to call us. That sentiment, combined with the event’s scheduled spot during one of the quietest times on the television sports calendar, has made the Little League World Series one of the most consistently viewed sporting events of the year – and a staple of ESPN’s annual programming.
Consequently, I could not have conceived of an “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Tour that excluded the LLWS. Decades after the last ground ball scooted under my glove and between my legs I would finally get around to locating Williamsport on a map.
A few months back I started researching the possibility of getting a ticket to the event, and much to my delight discovered that the good folks in Williamsport do not charge admission. That’s right – it’s free. Gratis, nada, zip, zilch. All you have to do is request tickets by mail ahead of time. Waaaaaay ahead of time. In fact, so far ahead of time that by the time I first conjured images of myself basking in the grandstand, I was already months too late.
BUT WAIT! The hill that lies beyond the outfield fence forms a natural amphitheatre, and it’s there that the Fan’s Law of Natural Selection applies: First-come, first-served seating. So you’re saying there’s a chance…
I arrived at the LLWS complex over two hours early on Saturday, ready to claim a spot on the hill and camp out for the duration – the International Championship game at 1:00, followed by the United States Championship at 4:00. Yes, I realized that this was asking a lot of my backside. And it didn’t help that the temperature was pushing 90 degrees. But it was Williamsport!And I’m not playing with a full deck, as we’ve established consistently over the past several months.
The main gate to Little League’s version of Valhalla is at the lower end of the complex. Once you’ve passed through security, you proceed up a gradual slope past practice fields and Volunteer Stadium until you reach the Promised Land: Howard J. Lamade Stadium. Approaching Lamade from the back side of the stadium as I did, my view of the famous hillside which would be home for the next 7 or 8 hours was blocked. But I did get a very good look at the line that I would have to stand in to get there, given that the back end had already snaked around the stadium to greet me.
So I queued up and hoped for the best. Surely there would be room on that hillside for just one more Sports Fan!
The line moved steadily, but agonizingly slowly. Helpless to improve my position, and left with no other way to entertain myself, I started eavesdropping on the people around me. It was all pretty pedestrian stuff – until I heard the words “It looks good. I think we’re going to get in.”
“In?” How does one get “in” to a hillside? It was clearly time for a little investigative journalism.
I sized up the group in front of me and picked out the guy who appeared the least judgmental. “Ahh, sorry to bother you, but can you tell me what we’re waiting in line for?” I asked, sounding every bit like the idiot that I clearly was.
“They’re handing out the unclaimed tickets” came the reply. “First-come, first-served.”
“You mean tickets into the stadium?” I asked, thus cementing my idiot status.
A slow grin crept across the face of my new friend. “First time here?”
We were old buddies by the time we got to the front of the line, so much so that he did the talking for me. “He came all the way from Los Angeles”, he explained to the Ticket Meister. Who listened and gave me a big smile. And a General Admission grandstand ticket.
To be continued…
As cities go, San Diego is dead last in the league of self-promotion. It often strikes me that, despite being the 8th most populous city in the country, most Americans would not notice if San Diego somehow drifted away from the U.S. mainland and floated down the coast to Mexico, re-attaching itself somewhere near Cabo.
Having lived in San Diego, I know that in general the natives are OK with this. The owners of the San Diego Padres have to be somewhat less enthusiastic about this dynamic though. See, they own the most beautiful baseball park (and perhaps the nicest sports facility of any kind) in America, and receive zero publicity on that topic.
My parents have always claimed that they, like all other parents, did not have a favorite child. It’s in the Parent’s Manual somewhere, I guess. In that same spirit, I maintain that I do not have any “favorite” sporting events. Sure some are more entertaining, but…oh come on now, who am I kidding?
It’s Saturday evening of the July 4th Great Baseball Weekend, and I’m pulling into my favorite off-site, low-cost parking lot just down Gene Autrey Way from Angels Stadium of Anaheim. And I’m excited. My heart is pumping, the adrenaline is surging – it’s Angel Baseball, live and in person! And even though this is officially event #33 in my quest to see the best that sports in this country has to offer, it’s already #1. A little background might help explain…
It’s Fourth of July Weekend. I’m an American. The way I see it, it is my patriotic duty to: (a) ooh and aah at fireworks displays; (b) eat at least one hot dog and one piece of apple pie; and (c) watch baseball. But so many options to choose from…Minor League ball? American League? National League? So I did what you’ve come to expect of a true Sports Fan: all of the above.
And so it was that on a Friday evening taken directly from a “Visit California” promo spot, The Bird and I set out for The Epicenter.
No seriously – that’s the name of the stadium. But admit it, that sounded dramatic, didn’t it?
Sometimes a game is destined to be a classic before the first pitch is thrown. You pretty much know it going in. But sometimes a classic sneaks up on you unexpectedly, coming out of nowhere to carve out a particularly hallowed spot in the annals of Fan-dom. Game Two of the NCAA College World Series Super Regional between UCLA and Cal State Fullerton was just such a game.