This blog is dedicated to the baseball travels my brother and I have taken over the past 20 years or so. Each entry will include pictures, videos (where available), scorecards and stories about our experiences on the road.
1. New Jersey to Chicago
Our first baseball trip of 2003 took us to Chicago to see the Cubs and the White Sox. Originally we scheduled a trip to see the Cubs in September of 2001, but circumstances made that impossible. Since we decided to make this a weekend trip, we flew from New Jersey to O’Hare Airport in Chicago on Saturday morning, May 3rd. Luckily, Newark-Liberty Airport in Newark, NJ was not busy, allowing us to breeze through security.
For the flight, we chose Midwest Airlines (now defunct). A Milwaukee based airline, they offered flights to many locations in the Midwest, and I was first introduced to the carrier for work in the late 1990s. Each plane had leather seats, and offered fewer seats than most mid sized airlines. In addition, they offered free chocolate chip cookies. Though it sounds trite, these cookies were actually very good. Though the fares were a bit higher than most airlines flying to Chicago, the roomier plane with leather seats was well worth the extra money.
After arriving at O’Hare Airport and picking up our rental car, we headed toward Chicago. Originally, we planned to see the White Sox on Saturday night, and the Cubs at Wrigley Field on Sunday afternoon. However, we arrived in Chicago much earlier than expected, and we realized we could catch the Saturday afternoon game at Wrigley.
2. Wrigley Field
Making our way to the North Side, we arrived at the park shortly before game time. Parking proved to be a challenge, as it often is with urban ballparks, and we ended up parking in the lot of a local business for an exorbitant amount. Not having tickets for the game, we went in search of scalpers, who were very easy to find. We secured two seats behind first base for more than face value. As is typical when we visit a new ballpark, we quickly toured the outside of the stadium. Arriving just before game time, our tour was truncated, and after we entered the venerable ballpark, we went in search of our seats.
Once we found our seats, it was immediately clear we had been swindled by the scalper. Our seats were terrible, in the lower level down the right field line with a limited view of home plate. Of course, not knowing the ballpark well, we foolishly took the scalper at his word that the seats were good. We laughed it off, being so gullible. Just being at Wrigley Field, a baseball palace, was enough to make us forget our faux pax, and we were determined to enjoy the experience regardless of our view.
Not surprisingly, Wrigley Field was filled to capacity. In addition to packed bleachers, we could see what seemed like hundreds of people crammed onto rooftops of neighboring buildings. Seeing the people on the rooftops on TV doesn’t give you a true idea of how many fans actually ring the ballpark. Beyond the left field, we could see the iconic Budweiser roof, located off West WVeland Avenue. But perhaps my favorite part of Wrigley Field was the hand operated scoreboard. A throwback to a bygone era, the scoreboard defined Wrigley Field for me, and I finally got to see it for myself.
We couldn’t have asked for better day weather wise, with crystal clear skies and temperatures in the 50s. Having seen Wrigley Field on TV many, many times, I could scarcely believe we were here. Dubbed the “friendly confines” by Cubs great Ernie Banks, the cozy ballpark teemed with history. Possibly the most famous of the features of Wrigley, the ivy on the outfield wall, was conspicuously absent. Being early May, it was too soon for the ivy to bloom, so instead we were treated to brown walls devoid of flora.
For the matinee, the hometown Cubs hosted the Colorado Rockies, with the first pitch slated for 120 pm CDT. Starting for the Rockies was journeyman left hander Darren Oliver, who was in his first season with the team. Taking the mound for Chicago was right hander Carlos Zambrano, the 23 year old who was beginning to show signs of becoming a Cy Young caliber starter for the Cubs. Good starting pitching, paired with a decent breeze coming in from Lake Michigan suggested a low scoring affair.
The Cubs struck first in the bottom of the second inning, stringing together hits and walks to plate three runs. Colorado responded with three runs of their own in the top of the third, and it seemed as though we would see an offensive display in Wrigley this afternoon. Chicago reclaimed the lead into the bottom of the fourth inning, with Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano hitting a solo home run to lead off the inning. While it is rare for pitchers to hit home runs, Zambrano was a good hitting pitcher, blasting 24 home runs over his career.
While there was a game at the ballpark that afternoon, Wrigley Field was the star of the show. Wall to wall sunshine and pleasantly cool temperatures made our visit to this baseball palace even more enjoyable, but the environment was indescribable. In between innings, I found myself admiring all that the ballpark had to offer, immediately understanding why Wrigley Park was considered a baseball mecca. Our seats were not ideal for taking pictures of the action, but from our location, we were able to enjoy the scene.
The Rockies scored three more runs in the top of the eight inning, taking a 6-4 lead that the bullpen held for the victory. Despite our seats, we thoroughly enjoyed our surprise visit, and would get a much better look at Wrigley Field the next afternoon. Following the end of the game, we inched out way out of the parking space, and headed toward our hotel. Our stay there was brief, just long enough to check in and drop off our bags, because we were headed toward US Cellular Field for a night game between the visiting Seattle Mariners and the home town White Sox.
3. US Cellular Field
We arrived in the South Side of Chicago about an hour before the first pitch of the game between the Mariners and the White Sox, scheduled for 605 pm. As we approached US Cellular Field (now known as Guaranteed Rate Field), it was clear that we were in a neighborhood very different than the one in which Wrigley Field is located. Parking around the ballpark was plentiful, with lots surrounding the stadium. Pulling into Lot B (across West 35th Street from the field), we asked the attendant the cost of parking. After telling us, he asked if our car was a rental, to which I said yes. As we pulled away he added “I hope it’s still here when you get back”. Not exactly what a visitor wants to hear, but we did our best not to let it affect over experience.
With little surrounding US Cellular Field but parking lots and I-94, we did not explore the outside of the park like we did for other stadiums we have visited. Entering through the home plate gate, I could not help but notice how much the outside of the ballpark reminded me of the main Yankee Stadium entrance.
US Cellular Field, which opened in 1991, was a replacement for Comiskey Park , the home of the White Sox from 1910 through 1990. Located across West 35th Street from US Cellular Field, Comiskey Park was razed in order to provide additional parking for the new ballpark. Opening a year before Camden Yards in Baltimore (the stadium that is generally acknowledged as the first of the “new” MLB parks), US Cellular Field had the feeling of a ballpark built in the 1970s or 1980s, generally symmetrical with three decks and bleachers almost completely ringing the outfield.
Following a quick tour of the inside of US Cellular Field, we went in search of a baseball dinner. Armed with drinks and snacks, we headed toward our seats. Surprisingly, despite the cool weather, the game was well attended, and the best seats we could procure were in the upper deck, directly behind home plate. Typically, we seek out seats in the lower level on either the first or third base side. However, when these seats are unavailable (as they were this night), we prefer to be closer to home plate when relegated to the upper deck. A long climb was rewarded with a great view of the ballpark as game time approached.
Though the sun was shining at the start of the game, a chill descended upon US Cellular Field, and it was evident that we were in for a cool early May evening in South Side. Starting for the visiting Seattle Mariners was right hander Freddy Garcia. The talented 26 year old was already an emerging star, yet listed as the fourth starter on a loaded Mariners rotation. On the mound for the hometown Sox was left hander Josh Stewart, who was in the first season of a brief two year MLB career. A seeming pitching mismatch favored the Mariners, who were just two season removed from a single season record of 116 wins in 2001.
We didn’t need to wait long for the fireworks to begin, as the Mariners pummeled Sox starter Josh Stewart for six runs in the first two innings, punctuated by two home runs in top of the first inning. Seattle tacked on four more runs in the top of the fourth inning, chasing Stewart from the game. Meanwhile, Freddy Garcia was cruising for the Mariners, putting the game out of reach fairly early.
With my attention straying from the game, I began to feel the chill more intently, as temperatures dropped into the 40s with the advent of night. Not surprisingly, the White Sox fans began to abandon what appeared to be a losing cause, steadily exiting as the home town fell further behind. As the announced crowd of 25,00+ thinned out, we noticed just how large US Cellular Field was. Unlike MLB that would follow, the stadium seemed to lack a sense of charm or intimacy, feeling more like a throwback to the past. Having said that, US Cellular Field was a comfortable place to see a game, and an upgrade to where the White Sox used to call home.
The Mariners tacked on two runs late in the game, as Freddy Garcia and a cadre of Seattle relievers held the Sox in check for 12-2 victory. Cold temperatures made the three hour 15 minute game seem even longer, and by the time the last out was recorded, I was ready to leave. Overall, US Cellular Field was a good place to see a ballgame, but generic enough not to be too memorable. While I was glad we took in a game here while in Chicago, there wasn’t enough of an attraction to being me back anytime soon.
Checking out of our motel Sunday morning, we still had a two hour plus drive to Arlington. We were not in a particular hurry, since the game between the hometown Texas Rangers and the visiting Oakland A’s had been “flexed” from early afternoon to early evening to accommodate ESPN’s Sunday Night game. Instead of a 215 pm CDT start, the first pitch would be thrown at 710 pm.
1. Heading to Arlington
With time to spare, we took our time getting into the Dallas metro area, finding lunch before deciding how we wanted to proceed. Since we were staying in the area overnight (flying out of Dallas the next morning), we checked into our hotel before heading out in the direction of the stadium. We arrived well ahead of the first pitch, and secured parking just outside of the Ballpark in Arlington, home of the Texas Rangers.
A demonstration was underway just outside the ballpark as we arrived. Based on the signage carried by the demonstrators, it appeared to be tied to gay rights. Being from the Northeast, I assumed that the demonstration was a pro gay rights rally. Almost immediately, I was proven wrong, as it was clear this was an anti gay rights assembly. This should not have surprised me, given the section of the country. To my great surprise, the demonstration was far from peaceful, as homophobic slurs were flying at what I considered an alarming rate.
Being from New Jersey, it took all of my restraint NOT to respond to the vitriol present at that rally, and there were several verbal altercations between demonstrators and passersby. Wanting to avoid a possibly ugly interaction, we left the area in search of a quieter location to wait for the gates to open at the stadium.
We stumbled upon the Legends of the Game Baseball Museum, located at the ballpark. Inside the museum, we found displays complete with bats, jerseys, and trophies belonging to baseball greats. There are exhibits on Texas Rangers history, the Negro Leagues and the Texas League, and the museum has facilities for students of the game to conduct research. While not as inclusive as the National Baseball Hall of Fame (nestled in Cooperstown, NY) or the Negro League Baseball Museum (located in Kansas City, MO), the museum was an enjoyable way to pass some time and is recommended if you attend a Rangers home game.
2. The Ballpark in Arlington
Fortunately for me, high clouds filtered the still strong mid September sun in Arlington, mercifully keeping temperatures in the 80s leading up to game time. The Ballpark in Arlington is an open air stadium, which was a controversial decision when the plans for the ballpark were announced. It is not unusual for temperatures to hover near 100 degrees F during summer afternoons and evenings, potentially putting the health of players and fans alike at stake. Because of the heat, most Rangers home games were played in the evening to avoid the worst of the conditions.
Cooler temperatures made exploring the park more enjoyable, at least for me. The Ballpark in Arlington was bigger than I expected, complete with three decks encompassing almost all of the entire playing field. With a capacity of greater than 48,000, it was one of the biggest “new” MLB ballparks. From our first look inside the ballpark, it was clear that a fair amount of planning was done to create the stadium’s atmosphere.
In a nod to the past, home plate, the foul poles and the bleachers were transplanted from Arlington Stadium, the home of the Texas Rangers from 1972 through 1993. The roof over the right field porch was reminiscent of Tiger Stadium, the former home of the Tigers. Finally, the white steel facade in the outfield was based on the facade of the old Yankee Stadium. Perhaps the most noticeable feature of the park was the office suites in centerfield, beyond the grassy noll that served as the batter’s eye. All of the above resulted in a large ballpark, much larger than I had expected.
While touring the ballpark, we happened upon the visitor’s bullpen in left field, which was enclosed under the lower level concourse. A’s pitcher Barry Zito was warming up in the bullpen before the game, getting in his between start throwing. Because of the closed nature of the bullpen, Zito, a left hander who’s game was predicated on control and pitch placement (rather than velocity), was seemingly throwing very hard during his warmup (due to the echo).
As we were watching Zito throw, a young fan walked up and said “Hey Barry, you are throwing really hard”. Normally, players ignore fan comments, even during warmups, as they are concentrating on getting ready for competition. However, Zito stopped throwing, looked up at the young fan and said “Ah, don’t let the sound fool you”. With that one sentence, Zito showed me that he was respectful of fans, and that he was fully aware that he was indeed not a hard thrower.
Following our tour, we headed for the concession stands to get a baseball dinner. With hots dogs, pretzels and drinks in hand, we headed toward our seats. Despite a strong starting lineup, the Rangers were mired in last place in the AL West. With the home team limping toward the end of a disappointing season, there were plenty of good seats available for the game. We were fortunate enough to score seats in the lower level, just to the third base side of home plate.
Starting for the visiting Oakland A’s was right hander Justin Duchscherer. Not one of the five man Oakland rotation, Duchscherer was making a spot start, just his third of the season. On the mound for the Rangers was left hander Tony Mounce, the fifth starter in the Texas rotation. Given the relative weakness of the starting pitching, we expected the strong lineups for both teams put on a hitting display. We didn’t have to wait long for the offensive fireworks to begin, as the teams combined for seven runs in the first two innings.
After this outburst however, both offense were quieted into the middle innings. While Tony Mounce lasted six innings for the Rangers, the A’s starter (Duchscherer) didn’t make it out of the fourth inning, leaving the game in the hands of the A’s bullpen. As evening faded into night at the Ballpark in Arlington, conditions became a bit cooler. Scoring slowed the pace of the game, leaving us some time to get a sense of the environment within the ballpark.
Not surprisingly, a disappointing season for the Rangers resulted in a sparse crowd, which seemed even smaller than the announced attendance 17,000. So few people in the park made the ballpark appear even larger, robbing the place of any charm or intimacy. A collage of pieces from other parks gave the Ballpark at Arlington an almost forced feel, further diluting any sense of identity. To be fair, the ballpark DID provide a pleasant environment in which to watch a game, but I didn’t get the same feel I did at other ballparks in our travels.
Following Alex Rodriquez’s 43th home run in the bottom of the fifth, the hometown Rangers took a 5-3 lead. In the top of the seventh, the A’s broke the game open with three runs, and a trio of A’s reliever closed the door on the potent Texas office to seal a 6-5 win for the A’s. We filed out of the park with the rest of the remaining crowd, taking what would be our last look at the Ballpark in Arlington. Even though we had a good time seeing a ballgame here, there was not enough to bring us back any time soon.
1. New Jersey to Houston
Our last baseball trip of 2003 took us to the Lone Star State at the tail end of summer. Since our first stop in Texas was Houston, we flew from Newark, NJ to the George Bush Intercontinental Airport on Saturday morning. Because it was a Saturday, we breezed through security at Newark-Liberty Airport, and the nearly four hour flight was uneventful. Landing in Houston in the early afternoon, we picked up our rental car and headed out to explore Houston.
Since we had some time before the scheduled first pitch at 710 pm, we set our sights on the Johnson Space Center, home of NASA. While we didn’t have enough time for a formal tour, we did stop to visit the few features that were located outside of the center itself. The highlight of the brief visit was seeing the Saturn V rocket, which launched the Apollo spacecraft toward the Moon.
2. Minute Maid Park
Hot and humid conditions met us at Minute Maid Park as we arrived about 90 minutes before the first pitch. Parking did not pose any particular problem, as there were parking lots located just outside of the ballpark. Had those lots been unavailable, there were myriad options for parking with a quarter of a mile of the park. Walking up to the stadium, I began to feel the effects of the hot and humid conditions.
Upon walking into Minute Maid Park, it was obvious that the roof was closed, as we went from bright sunshine to the dimly light stadium. Apparently the heat and humidity was the primary reason for the roof closure, presumably for the comfort of the fans, as the weather was otherwise tranquil.
As is our custom, we conducted a walking tour of the park. Following the lower concourse around the playing field, it was immediately clear that quite a bit of thought and planning went into layout of the stadium. One of the quirkier features of the park was a hill in centerfield, complete with a flag pole. Dubbed Tal’s Hill (named in honor of former Astros Tal Smith), the hill was a nod to the past, when a few ballparks had features in play (such as Monument Park in the old Yankee Stadium).
Another of the quirkier features of Minute Maid Park was the train track on the top of the exterior wall behind the left field fence. As the Astros take the field, hit a home run, or win a ballgame, the train travels the 800 foot span of the wall. The train is an homage to Union Station, once a transportation hub in Houston, which had been incorporated into the construction of the stadium.
Though Minute Maid Park appeared huge with the roof closed (as do most domed stadiums), the relatively small dimensions of the ballpark made it feel almost cozy. Following our exploration, we went in search of a baseball dinner. Of course, the three year old park had many dining choices, including several grills featuring barbecue. Somewhat pressed for time, we chose more standard baseball fare from concession stands in the left field concourse.
With snacks and drinks in hand, we headed toward our seats. The hometown Astros hosted the St Louis Cardinals for the evening contest, and the NL Central Division rivals drew a large crowd. Because of the rivalry, good tickets were hard to secure, so our seats were located in the lower level, between third base and the left field foul pole. Though not the best of views, we settled in to our seats, awaiting the first pitch.
Starting for the visiting Cardinals was right hander Matt Morris. The six foot five inch right hander was an important part of the St Louis rotation, just two years removed from a 22 win season in 2001. On the mound for the hometown Astros was right hander Roy Oswalt. Pegged as the number four starter in the Houston rotation, Oswalt made 21 starts in 2003, posting a 10-5 record. Given the strong starting pitching and importance of the game in the playoff picture, we expected to see a pitcher’s duel at Minute Maid Park.
As anticipated, pitching dominated the first three innings of the game, which resulted in a very quickly paced game. With the Astros coming up to bat in the bottom of the third inning, Cardinals catcher Mike Methany was ejected from the contest, presumably for arguing balls and strikes with the home plate umpire. Following the ejection, St Louis pitching coach confronted the umpire and was also ejected. The fireworks associated with the ejections took some time to unfold, slowing the momentum of the game.
Following the ejections, the Astros scored single runs in the fourth and fifth innings, featuring 1B Jeff Bagwell’s 35th home run of the season. Meanwhile, Houston starter Roy Oswalt kept the Cardinals batters off balance, keeping St Louis scoreless into the late innings.
Being from NJ, my brother and I have accents that were out of place in Texas, and while talking amongst ourselves, we caught the attention of another out-of-towner. A young man a few rows below us recognized our accents, which was surprising until we discovered he was from Connecticut. He was kind enough to ensure that we displayed proper baseball etiquette for games in Texas. We were reminded that booing was considered rude in Houston (though we had no reason to boo), and that we needed to sing “Deep in the Heart of Texas”, clapping when appropriate, during the seventh inning stretch. Finally, when I questioned the meaning of a confusing public announcement, he told me “this is Texas, dumb it down”. Chucking at his retort, I’m not sure anybody else picked up on snarky comment.
During the seventh inning stretch, the roof of Minute Maid Park was retracted. As the action on the field continued during the bottom of the seventh, the roof slowly and almost inaudibly moved from left field to right field, taking about 20 minutes to fully retract. The heat and humidity before the game had been replaced by cooler conditions and a light breeze. Like most stadiums with roofs, Minute Maid Park seemed smaller with the roof open, and suddenly the ballpark seemed even cozier. After seven strong innings by Astros starter Roy Oswalt, closer Billy Wagner shut down the venerable St Louis offense in the ninth, nailing down a 2-0 Houston victory.
The briskly paced game took just two hours and six minutes to complete. If the two ejections hadn’t occurred in the third inning, the game would have taken less than two hours, which in our experience is quite a rarity. Most of the more than 42,000 fans had stayed until the end of the game, slowing our exit and giving us some time to reflect on our visit. It was clear that quite a bit of thought went into the layout of Minute Maid Park, complete with nods to the past, as well as amenities common in “newer” MLB parks. Our visit was relatively short, but enjoyable, as we were treated to an outstanding game in an excellent facility.
Our night was not quite over, however. Trying to cut down on the amount of traveling necessary to catch a game at the Ballpark in Arlington the next day, we drove from Houston on our way toward the Dallas Metroplex. Knowing we wouldn’t be able to complete the nearly four hour drive that night, we stopped at a motel just off Interstate 45 North about halfway between the two large Texas cities.Arriving after midnight, we needed to ring a bell for service. A young woman graciously checked us into a room for the night. Behind the desk, we could see a young boy, probably no older than five, jumping around and having fun. Apparently the young woman’ son, she smiled when I mentioned his late night enthusiasm, suggesting that his behavior was typical when she worked overnights.
1. Kansas City, Missouri
After breakfast near the hotel in Kansas City, Kansas, we decided to explore downtown Kansas City, Missouri. High cloudiness started to filter the strong early August sunshine, and even though it was still early, we were seeing all the hallmarks of a hot and humid day in the heartland of America.
While researching resources for this blog post, I was HORRIFIED to discover that I could not locate the pictures I took in Kansas City, MO. Somewhere among my many moves, failed hard drives and incomplete backups, I apparently lost irreplaceable memories of our exploration. Unfortunately, a quick description of what we saw cannot replace the images I took.
Our first stop was East Kansas City, in the Vine Street area. Rife with history, it was clear that this portion of Kansas City was in recovery, whose best days were decades before. Unable to locate 12th Street and Vine (made popular in the song Kansas City by Wilbert Harrison), we strolled through this historic section of the city.
Along the way, we discovered the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, located at 1616 East 18th Street. Not knowing precisely what to expect, we found an amazing collection of history and memorabilia chronicling the story of the Negro Leagues from its beginnings into the early 1950s. While we were enthralled by the rich history of the league, by far my favorite display was the wax figures of the Negro Leagues stars arranged on a mock playing field.
Standing next to the life sized wax figures, I realized that the players were smaller in stature than I imagined, yet their presence was definitely larger than life. We spent nearly two hours in the museum, and we could have easily spent two more wandering among history, but the gates at Kauffman Stadium were about to open, so we cut our visit short. If you are even a casual baseball fan, you owe it to yourself for visit the museum if you are in the Kansas City area.
2. Kauffman Stadium
Following our visit to East Kansas City, we drove to Kauffman Stadium, home of the Royals. which took about 15 minutes. Kauffman Stadium is co located with Arrowhead Stadium, home of the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, as part of the Truman Sports Complex. Both stadiums are surrounded by large parking lots, with hotels and restaurants located beyond the complex. These stadiums were constructed during a time when other cities opted for multi-purpose stadiums, and the baseball-only Kauffman Stadium (commonly referred to as the “K”) opened in 1973.
We arrived at the complex just about as the gates opened at Kauffman Stadium, which gave us ample time to explore our surroundings. Arriving as early as we did, we had our choice of parking spaces, which cost a reasonable $10.00. Hazy sunshine brought with it hot and humid conditions, which limited our exploration to some degree. We first explored the outside of Arrowhead Stadium, which is a football-only facility. Unfortunately, we were much too early in the season to catch a Chiefs game.
We next focused our attention on the outside of Kauffman Stadium. Though this was my brother’s first visit to the home of the Royals, I had been here many times before. My employer had a training center in Kansas City, and we were housed at a Holiday Inn just across the street from the complex. Naturally, I visited Kauffman Stadium (which was called Royals Stadium in those days) as often as possible while I was in town. In fact, I first visited the park when it featured an AstroTurf surface, which was replaced by natural grass in 1995.
Though it had been a number of years since I’d attended a game here, it did not appear as though much had changed. Located just outside the park were statues of Royals greats. George Brett (perhaps the greatest Royal of all) crouched in his easily recognizable batting stance greeted fans as they walked up from the immense parking lot. Native son Frank White was also immortalized is stone outside the park.
The heat and humidity cut short our tour of the outside of the stadium, so we entered the park through the main entrance behind home plate. Clearing the main concourse, I could see that indeed very little had changed since my last visit. Kauffman Stadium was dignified in its simplicity, eschewing some of the trappings of “newer” MLB parks constructed within the past decade.
We wandered through the stadium, exploring the lower levels. Unfortunately, the right centerfield section of the park, where the iconic fountains reside (as well as the video and score boards), was not accessible on the concourse. In order to enjoy these sights, we headed back toward home plate. Kauffman Stadium was, compared to some of the newer MLB parks, uncluttered and almost elegant, which I found to be both attractive and refreshing.
Following our tour of the ballpark, we headed for the main concession stand behind home plate. The heat and humidity had taken a toll on me, and I was in need of hydration. While there many places to get something to eat at Kauffman Stadium, which not surprisingly featured beef and pork products, we chose more standard ballpark fare. With hot dogs, pretzels and drinks in hand, we made our way toward our seats. We were able to secure seats near the top of the lower level, just to the left of home plate.
Settling into our seats just before game time, we noticed that the crowd for the early evening start was fairly sparse. Perhaps it was the fact that the Royals were not competitive, or that the game time was 610 PM on a Sunday, but Kauffman Stadium was not quite half full by the time the first pitch was thrown. In fact, less than 18,000 fans attended the game, despite the warm and hazy conditions,
The hometown Royals hosted the Anaheim Angels for the final game of the three game set, with the first pitch scheduled for 610 PM CDT. Both teams were in the midst of disappointing seasons, especially the Royals, who had the second worst record in baseball. Taking the ball for the visiting Angels was right hander John Lackey, who was the workhorse of the Anaheim starting rotation. Starting the Royals was right hander Mike Wood. The 23 year old was struggling through a tough 2004 campaign, with an ERA over 5.00.
Both teams scored in the first inning, and I was beginning to wonder if we were in for a slugfest, given the mediocre starting pitching combined with warm and humid conditions. Each team scored runs in the fifth inning, and what I though might be an offensive outburst had turned into a tight ballgame. Even with the scoring, the nearly pinpoint control of the starting pitchers (who walked only one batter a piece). kept the contest moving at a brisk pace through the first six innings.
During the game, I found my attention captured by the foundations in right centerfield. Dubbed the Water Spectacular, it is the largest privately owned fountain system in the world. Among the fountains are waterfalls and cascades, which keeps the water in nearly continuous motion before and after games, as well as in between innings. Having seen the waterfalls on TV for decades, they seemed more majestic in person, particularly when backlit during night games.
With the Royals ahead 4-3 in the top of the ninth innings, Kansas City brought in right hander Nate Field to nail down the victory. However, Field did not have it this night, surrendering a solo home run to Angels LF Jose Guillen, which tied the score. A combination of Angels hits and Royals errors allows the visitors to tack on two more runs to take a 6-4 lead. Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez (K-Rod) shut the door on the Royals in the bottom of the ninth, striking out two while earning his eighth save of the season.
While waiting for the sparse Royals crowd to thin out before leaving, I took one final look at Kauffman Stadium. This park has always been one of my favorites, based primarily on the fact that it was simple yet elegant. Good use of space, the fountains and the unobtrusive scoreboard and video board produced a GREAT place to see a ballgames.
Since we last visited Kauffman Stadium, there have been a LOT of changes, not all of which appear to have improved the experience. Based solely on what I have seen on TV and in pictures, the “K” does not seem to be as appealing as it once was, as ownership seems to believe exchanging simplicity for extra amenities was a good idea. As much as I enjoyed Kansas City and the baseball atmosphere there, I am not sure I am as excited to go back to Kauffman Stadium as I was to visit in the past.
1 Newark NJ to St Louis MO
Our first baseball trip of 2004 took us to Missouri, the Show Me state, to see games in St Louis and Kansas City. Since this was planned as a weekend trip, there was insufficient time to drive from NJ to MO, we chose to fly. In order to catch the first pitch in St Louis at 1220 pm CDT, we needed to fly out of Newark NJ early Saturday morning.
A cold front had just passed Newark as our flight to St Louis started, so we experienced short bursts of intense turbulence as we climbed toward 10,000 feet. Once we reached cruising altitude, the turbulence subsided, but not before my stomach informed me that breakfast during the flight was probably not a good idea.
We chose to fly Midwest Airlines, a now defunct airline that featured spacious leather seats and complimentary chocolate cookies. Though the cost of the flight was a bit higher than other airlines serving St Louis, the roomy cabin was worth the extra money. Other than the bumpy climb out of Newark, the two hour flight was uneventful, bringing us into St Louis less than two hours before game time. After picking up our rental car, we headed for the stadium.
2. Busch Stadium
We arrived at Busch Memorial Stadium less than an hour before the first pitch, leaving us little time to explore the environment around the park. Instead, we headed inside upon arrival, wandering the concourses before heading to our seats. Busch Stadium was one of the cadre of multi purpose stadiums constructed from the mid 1960s into the early 1970s, housing both MLB and NFL teams playing on the then-new AstroTurf.
AstroTurf was developed as an alternative to natural grass playing surfaces, starting with the Astrodome in Houston Texas, since grass could not be grown under the dome. Laid out on a field of concrete (which provided a stable surface), the AstroTurf was an unforgiving inch thick “carpet” which often heated to 130 F during the summer. Eventually, AstroTurf was eschewed in favor of grass surfaces, which is what we found in Busch Stadium early that afternoon.
Crystal clear skies and rapidly warming temperatures greeted us as we found our seats shortly before the first pitch. Per usual, Busch Stadium was filled to near capacity, as St Louis fans are generally considered to be some of the best in the game. The opponents for the hometown Cardinals this afternoon was the New York Mets. St Louis was enjoying a strong 2004 season, with a commanding 10 1/2 game lead over the second place Houston Astros in the NL Central Division. By contrast, the Mets were battling their way through another sub .500 season, occupying the fourth spot in the NL East.
Starting for the visiting Mets was right hander Kris Benson. Making his first start for the Mets after being traded from the Pittsburgh Pirates, Benson was in the midst of a fairly average season, with a .500 record and an ERA over 4.00. The hometown Cardinals sent right hander Woody Williams to the mound. Williams was an 18 game winner for the Cardinals in 2003, and was still an important piece of the starting rotation for a formidable St Louis team. With the afternoon warming quickly, we were wondering if the ball would carry well at Busch Stadium this afternoon, resulting in an offensive display.
From the very start, the Cardinals fans were a force, with a loud din discernible for much of the game. Being from the Northeast, I would posit that the best fans in baseball were from the part of the USA, but the boisterous St Louis fans were slowly changing my mind. Despite the building heat, starting pitching dominated the early portion of the matinee. Each team scored a single run through six innings, and with both starters showing their best stuff, the game quickly became an old fashioned pitchers duel
As part of their playoff push, the Cardinals had acquired slugger Larry Walker from the Colorado Rockies at the trade deadline on July 31st. Walker’s first at-bat in a St Louis uniform came in the bottom of the 7th as a pinch-hitter. Looking to quench my thirst, I approached a vendor to purchase a soft drink as Walker came to the plate. Both the vendor and I paused the transaction to watch the at-bat. Walker received a standing ovation as he strode to the plate, which was understandable, as the Cardinals fans though they were welcoming a presence that would propel them through the playoff run. However, when Walker struck out, the Cardinals fans gave him another standing ovation, a highly unusual response to a strikeout. In fact, it was so unusual that the vendor pointedly asked me “have you ever seen anything like that?”.
Both starting pitchers exited that game by the end of the seventh inning, leaving the tight contest in the hands of the respective bullpens. Quite unexpectedly, a game that I thought might be one-sided because of the Mets recent struggles had become one of the best games I’d seen in person in years. The score remained tied at 1-1 going into the bottom of the ninth inning, giving the Cardinals one last chance to end the game before extra innings.
Having experienced the devoted and vocal Cardinal fans first hand, I was very surprised to see them execute “the wave” during a critical portion of a tightly contested ballgame. It was almost as though the fans were not fully aware of the game situation, instead becoming lost in the moment of being at the ballpark. The Cardinal pushed across the winning run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, securing a well-fought 2-1 victory.
We’d just witnessed one of the best ballgames I’d seen in a long time at the home of an iconic MLB franchise. Though Busch Stadium itself was a typical multi-purpose facility, a product of its time, the crowd made it feel like a great place to see a ballgame (despite their curious wave display in the bottom of the ninth). Having seen the stadium, there was no reason to return until the new ballpark was ready, which was a couple of years away. Still, it WAS fun to see a baseball game in the heartland of America.
Our destination after the game was a hotel room in eastern Kansas, before we visited Kaufman Stadium in nearby Kansas City the following afternoon. Before heading out onto Interstate 70 west, we briefly visited the Gateway Arch, the longtime symbol of the opening of the western USA. It was also my first visit to the Mississippi River, an iconic symbol of the heartland of the USA. We would see the river at several points along its journey in the coming years.
We didn’t linger long in the Gateway Arch National Park, as we had a 300 mile drive ahead of us. Light traffic heading west on Interstate 70 allowed us to reach the hotel just outside of Kansas City in less than four hours.
Wall to wall sunshine awaited us as we ventured from the hotel (following breakfast) and headed toward the Great American Ballpark. With some time before the first pitch of the (scheduled for 115 pm), we found parking near the stadium, and walked the pavilion along the mighty Ohio River.
It was clearly evident that the Ohio River was running very high, swelled by recent heavy rainfall in the area. The normally docile river was roiled by flood waters, swiftly taking sheds, large trees and assorted clutter in its muddied currents downstream. Contrasted by the sunny skies and light winds, the Ohio running out of its banks in full fury made it even more dramatic.
Not surprisingly, the beautiful late summer weather brought a large number of people to the riverfront. Most seemed to be transfixed by the state of the river, while others were simply enjoying the weather and the scenery. Strolling along the pavilion, we were treated to views of northern Kentucky, as well as the paddle wheel boats on the river. Despite the swift currents, people were enjoying the ride, and had I planned more carefully, perhaps I would have been one of those people. Instead, we enjoyed the river from dry land.
1. Great American BallPark
Following our walk along the river, we headed toward the park as the gates were opening. Unlike last night, we left ourselves plenty of time to explore Great American Ballpark. In its second season of service, the ballpark still had a “new” feel to it. More than 42,000 red seats, arranged in three decks spanning from foul line to foul line gave the ballpark a nearly overwhelming “Redness” feel.
Arriving just as the gates opened, there were few fans inside the ballpark. This allowed us to explore the park with little obstruction. While the capacity of Great American Ballpark is a bit larger than its predecessor, Riverfront Stadium, the openness of the new park made it seem much bigger than the older, multi-use colossus.
Like most newer ballparks, the concourse encircled the stadium, allowing us to take pictures from all angles. As expected, the main attraction of the park was the view of the Ohio River. From the upper deck behind home plate, we could see the river, as well as the towns and buildings of nearby northern Kentucky. Crystal clear skies and warm late summer temperatures resulted in a beautiful view from the stadium, possibly one of my favorites among MLB ballparks.
In my opinion, one of the best features of Great American Ballpark is the Smokestacks. Located just to the right of the batter’s eye in centerfield, the Smokestacks were a nod to the history of the Ohio River, when paddle wheel boats were the main mode of transport for people and produce along the length of the river.
After completing our tour of the ballpark, we went in search of a baseball lunch. Though Great American Ballpark offered a wide array of places to eat and drink, we chose to stick with the more conventional concessions. Stocked up with drinks and snacks, we headed for our seats. While Sunday matinees typically attract a smaller crowd than Saturday night affairs, good seats were difficult to obtain for this game. Just like the night before, our seats were further away from the action, though we were at least closer to the plate.
The starting pitchers for the game this afternoon were both former Mets. Chicago sent veteran left hander Glendon Rusch to the hill. Rusch was a Met in 2000-2001, and we saw him shut out the Boston Red Sox in 2001, allowing only infield single to open that contest. Starting for the hometown Reds was right hander Paul Wilson. One of the Generation K starters for the Mets in the mid 1990s, a promising trio that didn’t pan out quite as Mets fans had envisioned, Wilson showed flashes of brilliance with the Mets, but ultimately lost favor with their management and disappeared. After landing in Cincinnati, Wilson’s career experienced something of a renaissance, and 2004 for his best big league campaign.
With the Cubs still in contention for a playoff spot, this was a meaningful game for them. In contrast, the Reds were simply playing out the string toward the end of a disappointing season. Surprisingly, both starting pitchers were at the top of their games on this warm afternoon, with a scoreless tie continuing through the first six innings.
The Reds broke the tie in the bottom of the seventh inning with an RBI single by LF Adam Dunn. In the top of the eight inning, the Cubs tied the score with a sacrifice fly. By this time, both starting pitchers had exited the content, allowing one run each, and the outcome of the game was left in the hands of the bullpen. Cincinnati reliever Danny Graves allowed the final run of the game in the top of the ninth, as the Cubs squeaked out a 2-1 victory.
We were not leaving the Cincinnati area right after the game, so we took out time leaving Great American Ballpark. Aside from the amazing view of the Ohio River, the newly minted ballpark offered all the amenities found in the “newer” MLB ballparks, except for scoreboard. Most new parks feature the latest video board technology, but the video board at Great American ballpark was surprisingly small, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
Overall, I was impressed with the park, with my opinion dominated by the view over the center field fence. Unlike some of the newer parks we have visited, I did not feel a level of intimacy at Great American Ballpark, though the sample size was admittedly small. Though I was impressed with the environment, I am not sure I was impressed enough to return anytime soon.
2. Paul Brown Stadium
Since direct flights from Cincinnati to Newark, NJ were not available after the baseball game, we decided to stay in the area and fly out Monday morning. With a free night available, we decided to attend an NFL game at Paul Brown Stadium, the home of the Bengals. The stadium is part of a larger complex which includes the Great American Ballpark, so we didn’t even have to move our vehicle from the parking lot.
Not realizing that the Sunday night game was the home opener for the Bengals for the 2004 season, we found securing seats to be difficult. Since pickings were fairly slim, we settled on seats in the lower level of the southern end zone. While hardly ideal for viewing the game action, the seats did allow us to be part of the experience, which was enhanced by the enthusiasm of the crowd.
Because our seats were less than desirable, we didn’t get many good pictures of the action. Instead, we enjoyed the action and environment of the NFL contest.
1. New Jersey to Cincinnati
Our second baseball trip of 2004 took us to Cincinnati, Ohio to see the Great American Ballpark, the new home of the Reds. From central New Jersey, the drive to Cincinnati was deemed to too long for a two day visit, so we decided to fly. The flight was just two hours, so flying out of the Newark-Liberty Airport in the early afternoon brought us to Cincinnati a couple of hours before the first pitch, scheduled for 710 pm EDT.
After landing at the airport, we picked up our rental car and headed to the hotel to drop off our bags. Since the Cincinnati airport is actually in Covington, Kentucky, we stayed at a hotel near by, rather than in Cincinnati itself. Following a 15 minute drive, which took us across the Ohio River from Kentucky into Ohio, we arrived at the ballpark. Great American Ballpark is located along the banks of the Ohio River, part of a larger complex which includes Paul Brown Stadium (home of the NFL’s Bengals) and the Heritage Bank Center. Not surprisingly, parking was ample throughout the complex, and after securing parking, we walked up the stadium.
2. Great American Ballpark
Having arrived about an hour or so before game time, we skipped out normal walk around the outside of the stadium and entered the ballpark (as we would have a better opportunity to explore the area the next afternoon). Soon after walking into the stadium from the centerfield gate, we discovered the best feature of the new ballpark (which opened just the year before): the view of the Ohio River.
Located adjacent to the river, the park was constructed to take full advantage of the spectacular view of the river, as well as the structures across the river in Covington and Newport. Since the game time was about 30 minutes before sunset, the encroaching darkness diminished the view to some degree, but we would get a much better look during the afternoon contest the next day.
The opponent for the hometown Reds this evening was the Chicago Cubs. With the St Louis Cardinals running away with the NL Central in 2004, the Cubs were still in contention for the wild card spot, but the Reds were limping toward the end of a disappointing campaign. Starting for the visiting Cubs was future Fall of Famer Greg Maddux. The three-time Cy Young award winner was not quite the pitcher he was just a few years earlier, but was still effective and an important part of the Cubs rotation as they pushed for a playoff spot.
Aaron Harang took the ball for the hometown Reds. For the 6 foot 7 inch right hander, 2004 was his first full year in the Reds rotation. With both pitchers having mediocre seasons (especially Maddux), we were prepared for an offensive display from both teams.
Clear skies, light winds and comfortable temperatures greeted us as afternoon faded into evening. After picking up a baseball dinner, we went in search of our seats. Though the Reds had been out of playoff contention for some time, there was a sizable crowd for the Saturday evening contest. Consequently, our seats for the game were located down the right field line in the middle deck. Further from the action that I would have liked, but the great weather made up for the distance.
Despite my expectations of an offensively dominated contest, starting pitching dominated the first half of the game, which each team scoring just a single run in the first five innings. However, as often happens in MLB games, both pitchers struggled as they made their way through the lineup for the third time. The Cubs scored three runs in the top half of the sixth inning, including a home run by LF Moises Alou. Not to be outdone, the Red erupted on Greg Maddux in the bottom half of the inning, with C Willy Mo Pena hitting his second home run of the game, giving the Reds a 6-4 lead.
A solo home run by the Cubs’ Sammy Sosa in the top of the eighth inning brought Chicago within a run. Not quite the slugger he was in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when he was hitting 60+ home runs a year, Sosa was still a force to be reckoned with, exuding the same enthusiasm for the game as always.
Sosa’s home run ended the scoring, as the Reds bullpen shut down the vaunted Cubs offense to secure a 6-5 Reds victory. Despite the scoring, the game was completed in two hours and 45 minutes. My initial impression of the Great American Ballpark was positive, but we would get a better chance to see the ballpark with the mighty Ohio River as a backdrop during an afternoon contest the next day.
Sunshine greeted us as we went in search of breakfast in Milwaukee. Wanting to dine quickly, we settled on a Denny’s not far from the hotel. Being a Denny’s, there was nothing particularly memorable about the place, but we did witness the apparent aftermath of an ended relationship. Two women sitting at a booth near a window at the back of the restaurant were engaged in an animated conversation. The woman sitting with with her back to us was using colorful metaphors to describe her ex, while the woman facing us smiled, realizing that much of the place was eavesdropping on her friend’s rant. Even as we were leaving, the metaphors were still flying.
We arrived at Miller Park about 1145 am, just as the gates were opening for the 105 pm contest. Approaching the stadium, we noticed that it was built at grade level (ground level). Most ballparks, especially MLB parks with retractable domes, are constructed so that the playing field is located stories below ground level. In doing so, the stadium has a lower profile, so that it does not tower above its surroundings.
Being built at ground level, Miller Park definitely towers above its surroundings, and can be seen from a considerable distance. In the light of day, we learned that the stadium was surrounded by parking lots, and not much else. Acres of parking lots made Miller Park look even more enormous, dominating the skyline.
Driving up Brewer Way, we noticed a much smaller ballpark on our right. Helfaer Field, located on the site of old County Stadium (former home of the Brewers), is a ballpark suited for youth and softball games. Equipped with a big league scoreboard, sound system and lighting, the field is available for use by the public. There were people preparing the field for use, presumably that afternoon during the Mets/Brewers game.
Unlike the night before, the weather afforded us the chance to explore the outside of Miller Park. With little else around the park, we focused on the glass, steel and brick that compromised the ballpark. The stadium was physically imposing, and after a quick trip around the park, we headed inside.
Milky sunshine allowed the roof of Miller Park to be open for the afternoon game. Unlike the cool conditions the previous night, the sunshine came along with warm and humid conditions, making it feel more like late spring in southern Wisconsin. Not surprisingly, with the roof open, Miller Park did not seem quite as cavernous, though it was still a large stadium.
Upon entering, we walked the lower concourse of the ballpark, taking us to center field. From that vantage point, we got a feel for the size of the stadium, with four tiers of seating from foul line to foul line. Walking toward the right field line gave us a great view of the retracted roof. Swinging back toward left field afforded us an up close view of Bernie’s Slide, on which the mascot descends following Brewer home runs.
Following our tour of the interior, we picked up a baseball lunch on the lower level concourse behind home plate, then headed for our seats. Once again, we were able to secure good seats in the lower level, a bit further up the first base line from the seats we had the night before. Though we were initially bathed in the milky sunshine in our seats, by the time the game started, shadowed covered the first base line.
Starting for the visiting Mets was crafty left hander Tom Glavine. A future Hall of Famer, Glavine was working through a rocky beginning of the 2005 season. Opposing Glavine for the hometown Brewers was left hander Chris Capuano, who was beginning his second season in Milwaukee. Capuano would become one of the Brewers most reliable starters in 2005, leading the staff with 18 wins.
The Brewers jumped on the Mets starter for two runs in each of the first two innings, placing the Mets in a 4-0 hole early in the contest. Following the initial onslaught, Glavine settled down (like the veteran he was), managing to last six innings, not yielding any more runs before exiting. Meanwhile, the Brewers starter held a venerable Mets offense to a lone run through six innings. Neither starter was sharp, allowing enough base runners to slow the game to a crawl at times.
Despite the sunshine and warmer temperatures, the crowd was rather sparse at Miller Park. It has been our experience that Sunday afternoon games are generally lightly attended when compared to crowds on Saturday nights. With an announced attendance of less than 18,000, Miller Park looked even bigger, with most of the fans in the lower levels between first and third base.
The Mets started to chip away at the Brewers lead, as right fielder Mike Cameron hit a two run home run in the sixth inning. A run for the Mets in the eight tied the game at four, leaving the game in the hands of the respective bullpens.
A run scoring single off the bat of JJ Hardy in the bottom of the ninth inning gave the Brewers a 5-4 victory. While waiting for the thinning crowd to exit Miller Park, I took one last opportunity to look over the stadium. Overall, my opinion of the park was positive, as we got the chance to see it with the roof open. As one of the larger “new” MLB park, it seemed to lack intimacy or charm. Having only seen the park twice, I’m sure diehard Brewers fans would disagree with my assessment, and they very well could be right. However, while I was happy to visit the most recent addition to the retractable dome ranks, I’m not sure the allure is strong enough to bring me back anytime soon.
1. Newark NJ to Milwaukee WI
Our only scheduled MLB baseball trip of 2005 took us to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to visit Miller Park, the home of the Brewers. With Milwaukee lying just outside of driving range for a weekend trip, we decided to fly. Rather than use a typical domestic carrier, we chose to travel from Newark, New Jersey directly to Milwaukee via Midwest Airlines.
Flying for work, I was introduced to Midwest Airlines (a Milwaukee based carrier, now defunct) in the late 1990s. Perhaps the most appealing aspect of flying Midwest Airlines was the seating aboard the planes. Each of the seats in a Midwest Airlines plane was leather, with only two seats together alongside the aisle. In addition, each passenger received a giant chocolate chip. While the gesture could have been considered trite, the cookie was actually delicious. Though the seats cost a bit more than other domestic carriers, the roomier leather seats were worth the extra money.
Being a Milwaukee based carrier, we were able to book nonstop flights. The two and one-half hour flight out to Milwaukee was uneventful, though the weather was steadily worsening at we reached our destination. After picking up our rental car, we briefly stopped at the hotel to drop off our bags, then we headed straight to the ballpark for a 605 pm CDT first pitch.
2. Miller Park, Milwaukee
A steady rain began as we left the hotel, and by the time we arrived at Miller Park, the rain had become heavier with a few claps of thunder. Luckily for us, parking was plentiful at the stadium, and we parked as close to the stadium as possible. Typically, we tour the outside of new stadiums to take pictures of the park and its surroundings. However, the rain and cool temperatures made walking outside infeasible. In fact, as we entered Miller Park, a squall occurred outside.
Miller Park is a stadium with a retractable roof, which was very fortuitous on the rainy and cool Milwaukee evening. Otherwise, the game between the hometown Brewers and the visiting New York Mets would certainly have been a causality of the weather. With the roof closed and storms raging outside, Miller Park seemed dark, despite the lights being on.
Like most ballparks with their roofs closed, Miller Park looked cavernous, particularly with a sparse crowd during batting practice. We arrived early enough to wander about the stadium. Though we did tour much of the ballpark before the game, the dark conditions within Miller Park made taking pictures fairly difficult, so we cut the tour short (since we would get another opportunity to see the ballpark the next day).
As is the case in most of the “newer” MLB ballparks, there were myriad locations to obtain concessions throughout Miller Park. Not surprisingly, there were a number of sausage and bratwurst based dishes available, but we chose more traditional fare for our ballpark dinner. With snacks in hand, we headed toward our seats. Fortunately, we were able to secure seats in the lower level, just to the right of home plate. The seats afforded us a great view of the action, as well as a panoramic view of the stadium.
Starting the the visiting Mets was veteran right hander Pedro Martinez. Though the 33 year old future Hall of Famer was not quite the pitcher he was in his prime, Martinez was enjoying a fast start to his 2005 campaign, sporting a 4-1 record with a sub 3.00 ERA. Opposing Martinez for the Brewers was right hander Wes Obermuller, who was struggling early in the season,
Despite the bad weather, the crowd at Miller Park was impressive, with over 39,000 fans in attendance for the 605 pm CDT first pitch. Even though the pitching matchup seemed one-sided, the game remained scoreless into the fourth inning, when a solo home run by Mets third baseman David Wright put the Mets on top. The Brewers responded with a three run home run by left fielder Carlos Lee in the bottom of the fourth to take the lead.
The Mets offense struck again for runs in the fifth and seventh innings, highlighted by home runs by centerfielder Carlos Beltran (who drove in four runs for the game). However, the Brewers scored two more runs off Martinez in the seventh, ending his night. Despite surrendering five runs in seven innings, Martinez struck out 11 and left with a chance to garner a win for his efforts.
After the departure of Pedro Martinez, the Mets bullpen held the lead, securing a 7-5 victory. Even with 12 combined runs being scored, the time of the game was a reasonable two and one-half hours. Following the end of the game, we headed out into the night. Though the rain had ended, it was still damp and humid.
My first impression of Miller Park was decidedly mixed, as often happens when we see a domed stadium for the first time with the roof closed. We would get another chance to see the park Sunday afternoon, hopefully with the roof open.
We added one more baseball trip to the end of the 2005 season. For years, the Montreal Expos, a team owned by MLB, threatened to leave the Canadian city. The franchise never recovered from the baseball strike in 1994, when they were arguably the best team in the game. Since that time, attendance dwindled, and their home park, Olympic Stadium, had fallen into disrepair (which we saw for ourselves in 2001).
Finally, the franchise moved to Washington, DC, for the 2005 season. At the time, DC did not have a baseball only stadium ready for the newly renamed Nationals (ground won’t be broken on Nationals Park until 2006). In the interim, the Nationals were slated to play their home games at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium (informally known as RFK). Once the home of the MLB Washington Senators and the NFL Washington Redskins, RFK was the home of the local MLS franchise, but hadn’t hosted NFL or MLB games for some time.
As result, it had also fallen into a degree of disrepair. Still, MLB was keen to move the franchise, and the Nationals would play their games at RFK. Since the ballpark was only about a four hour drive from central NJ, we decided to make the visit a day trip. The drive was uneventful, outside of the traffic that one encounters in the DC area. Arriving at the ballpark about the time the games opened, we quickly became aware that RFK Stadium was not in one of the finer neighborhoods of DC, so we did not wander far from the ballpark.
Parking as ample, and arriving well before the first pitch, we had our choice of parking spots. A quick walk around the ballpark showed an aging multi purpose stadium that was enjoying something of a renaissance with the return of MLB action. It was clear that the park had seen better days, and from the perspective of the rebranded franchise, it was a just a place to play until their own park debuted in 2008.
Once inside, we got an idea of how long it had been since the stadium had been used extensively. Walking through the home plate gate, there were coaxial and Internet cables literally stapled to the concrete walls. Since the Nationals were only temporary tenants, it was clear that little in the way of infrastructure changes were forthcoming. Walking around RFK on the lower concourse, we were reminded of other multi purpose stadiums constructed during the same time frame (such as Veteran’s Stadium in Philadelphia or Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh).
Despite that, RFK seemed to have more in the way of character than the other coliseums from that time period. Unlike the other stadiums of that period, RFK seemed cozier (with a seating capacity just shy of 46,000), and sported a grass field. Like most stadiums from the 1960s, RFK was enclosed, giving it a retro feel when compared to the “newer” MLB ballparks.
Though there were not as many amenities as other ballparks, we managed to find a baseball lunch at one of the many concession stands and headed off to find our seats. Sunshine began to filter through the thick clouds (which prompted stadium officials to turn on the lights), and temperatures rebounded into the 70s, setting the stage for comfortable conditions for watching a ball game at the aging RFK Stadium.
With the season winding toward the end, and both the Mets and Nationals out of playoff contention, my attention turned to the Mets catcher Mike Piazza. Once among the most feared hitters in the game, age and nagging injuries resulted in a subpar campaign for the slugger. In the last year of his contract, it was unlikely that the Mets would try to resign him, so this game marked the last time we would see Piazza in a Met uniform in person.
Despite having nothing to play for in this game, most of the regulars were in the lineup for both teams. Starting for the Mets was right hander Kris Benson, who was completing an unspectacular 2006 campaign, his last in a Met uniform. For the hometown Nationals, the starter was right hander John Patterson, completing his season with a respectable 3.13 ERA.
Our seats, in the middle deck to the right of home plate, gave us a great view of the stadium. Soaking in the environment, RFK seemed like an anachronism, with earth tones colors reminiscent of the 1960s. Noticeably absent from the park was a large screen video board. Built long before such technology existed, the ballpark seemed almost naked without it. Reminding me of my younger days as a baseball, I found that I didn’t miss it.
Even with the clouds and threat of rain, there was a good crowd on hand for the Sunday matinee, with an announced attendance of over 29,000. It was obvious early that neither starting pitcher had his best stuff, as the Nationals and Mets traded runs through the first four innings. The scoring included a long solo home run to left field in the second inning by Mike Piazza, flashing some of the power from his heyday.
Piazza followed up his home run in the second inning with another solo home run in the fourth inning. It was almost as though he sensed the end was coming, and was rising to the occasion with a vintage Piazza power display. The teams traded runs throughout the middle innings, slowing the pace of the game to a crawl at times, as the teams made seven pitching changes.
During the down time, I took an opportunity to further examine the stadium. The outfield grass showed signs of wear, a victim of the hot and often dry DC summers, obviously neglected as the season reached its end. Though it was a relic, it reminded me of the ball games played in the “cookie cutter” ballparks I watched on TV as a kid, so there was a familiar vibe within RFK.
Hoping we would see a third home run from Mike Piazza, we were instead treated to a massive home run to deep right field by the young Mets first baseman Mike Jacobson in the eight inning. Initially, we thought the ball might clear the roof and completely exit the ballpark. Instead, it landed on the roof and careened back onto the field. The home run gave the Mets a 6-5 lead, which the bullpen protected for a victory for New York.
Filing out of RFK following the game, I reflected on our visit. Though it was fun seeing a game in a throwback ballpark with its roots in the 1960s, there was little reason to return. Our next baseball visit to DC would be to see the new ballpark, which was more than two and one-half years in the future.