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Monday, August 28, 2017

Tampa Bay Rays: Two good games, a laid-back St. Pete, and a record-spinning kitty



August 22, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays 6, Toronto Blue Jays 5
August 23, 2017
Toronto Blue Jays 7 Tampa Bay Rays 6

(Randy's Perspective)
We'd been warned about Major League baseball in Tampa Bay. We'd read about it. We'd seen pictures of Tropicana Field. And I talked to a couple of people who had been to St. Petersburg to see the Rays, who are the newest team in the big leagues playing in one of the worst pro parks in America.

These stories and pictures and what-nots on this blog site are documentation of my wife Penny's and my journeys to Major League ballparks across the country. Tampa Bay was trip No. 21 out of a potential 30 - even though Penny says we have to go back to Atlanta, because the Braves have left Turner Field. So does Atlanta count? I vote yes.

Sadly, with life and work getting in the way, we haven't had much time to travel during the past year. We caught three parks last year; one this year. Our odyssey is now in year six (I think), and we still have nine more stops to make. They've all been good; some better than others.

One of the rewarding things for me has been the connection to baseball that Penny is making - I mean, she's the one with the scorebook every game, even tallying the balls and strikes - as well as the re-connection that I - a sportswriter in a past life- am experiencing.

Tampa Bay is one trip we've talked about. It almost felt as if we were getting this one out of the way before we hit more traditional, historic and/or just plain well-known places that remain to be seen: Dodger Stadium, for example, or the New York parks. ... But to get to 30 you've got to check Tampa Bay off the list. So off we went.

I have a work friend from the Sebring, Florida, area, an hour and a half from St. Pete. He offered a curious, but accurate, analysis of going to a Tampa Bay Rays game.

He said, "Well, it's ... it's ... actually kind of interesting. It's not as bad as some people say. One of the good things is that the Rays don't draw big crowds. You can always get good seats. And it's inside, so you don't have to worry about the heat."

All of those things were true. In fact, in retrospect, it was kind of quirky and fun. ... What's not to
It's not an optical illusion. The roof is slanted, apparently
in deference to preserving cool air.
like about a stadium named after orange juice that features: an intentionally lopsided dome roof; catwalks that have been pelted by fly balls; a fan base that includes Dick Vitale as a regular; and a rally video that stars a record-spinning feline named D.J. Kitty?

Seriously, D.J. Kitty spins tunes. His first video went viral. Almost a million people saw it within a week. ... The Rays drew 11,000 a night during the two games we attended. Interesting doing the math on that.

Check out the kitty: D.J. Kitty on the scene

In fact, we saw two close, event-filled, one-run-victory games between the Rays and the Toronto Blue Jays - and the loudest crowd-noise moments during our evenings at Tropicana Field happened when: (a) the Blue Jays scored, prompting rowdiness from the 300 or so (apparent) Canadians that dotted third base-line seats; or (b) D.J. Kitty made his sixth-inning nightly appearance.

Speaking of quirky, allow me to mention an oddity about Tropicana Field. Penny talks about this in her entry, too, but there is a museum behind centerfield that has some interesting, but unusual exhibits. Since there's not enough Tampa Bay Rays history to house a museum, the Rays have broadened the scope. The bell cow of the Tampa Bay museum is the Ted Williams "wing."

If you're a baseball historian, your first thought is: Ted Williams - considered by many the greatest pure hitter of all time - was born in San Diego and spent his entire career in Boston. The connection to Tampa and St. Pete, we found, is that he liked Florida and once caught a big fish in the Gulf of Mexico near the St. Petersburg-to-Clearwater coastline.

The museum's historian told Penny: "Ted Williams really, really liked Florida." To the historian's credit, Williams was living in Inverness, Florida, in 2002 when he passed away.

One other thing. I found a personal connection in the baseball museum. They had a great hitters' collection. It contained a picture of Jim Rice, the Red Sox slugger, who happened to be four years ahead of me at our mutual high school alma mater, T.L. Hanna (Anderson, S.C.)

Two members of T.L. Hanna's athletic hall of fame are Jim Ed Rice (as we knew him then) and Radio, of Hollywood movie fame.

                                                                   *



Before quickly discussing the two games Penny and I saw, let me offer a two-day visitors' version of St. Petersburg.

St. Pete had a downtown thoroughfare – Central Avenue – that seemed trendy and chic. It had coffee bars, regular bars, ice cream shops, local – not chain – retail stores, vegan-friendly restaurants, a reflexology parlor, and a few artsy places of varying stripes. By golly, St. Petersburg had everything but people.

If fact, my first thought was that Central Avenue in St. Petersburg wasn't all that different than Capital Street in Charleston, West Virginia, the state in which we reside. Only Capital Street has more bars, seems busier and has more people meandering about. St. Pete had a smaller-city feel, in other words. Not that that's a bad thing.

Of course, Charleston, West Virginia, doesn't have beaches, theme parks and a major city, Tampa, right up the road. So there's that. But St. Pete and the beaches we cruised were pleasantly not overcrowded. That was kind of cool.

It being August in Florida, however, the weather was scorching, which might account for the lack of bustle. Perhaps Gulf Coast Floridians are smart enough to stay indoors.

That theme – something to do, no one doing it - even carried to its Major League Baseball venue: Tropicana Field. We saw two outstanding baseball games played by two slightly-under-.500 baseball teams. As I mentioned, the crowds were around the 11,000 number, and I think that total was generous.

Penny and I pose, 10 minutes prior to the first pitch ...
Did I mention that the announced crowd of 11,000 seemed
a rather generous assessment?
The notoriously small crowds, I would only guess, would be larger were the park more up-to-date and in Tampa. Then again, what do I know? It was odd, though, seeing such sparse, quiet crowds because the Rays seem to be a pretty solid club. They're not likely to make the playoffs, but they're technically still in the race. A nice winning streak could make things interesting. Perhaps it would get the crowds up to 15,000 to 20,000. They tell me that when the Yankees or the Red Sox are in town, the Rays can draw 30,000 - but the majority are Yankees and Red Sox fans.

The first night we were in St. Pete, the Rays won 6-5. The second night the Blue Jays won 7-6. Two excellent games that came down to the final at-bat.

Our Game 2 was an odd affair that included nine home runs, six by the Blue Jays. And they weren't exactly the just-over-the-fence variety. These were titanic shots.

This makes me proud.
Penny, who is fast becoming a scorekeeping wizard - an astonishing development considering that she probably had never fully paid attention to a baseball game until a couple of years ago - turned to me sometime around the fifth inning of the second game and asked, "Is this stadium known for giving up a lot of homers? It looks like the fence is pretty close in."

Penny's observation, I had to admit, was astute. I, who have seen lots of baseball games (and played in a few) in stadiums with playing fields ranging in size from the 180-foot fences at Embler Field little league field in Anderson, South Carolina, to the 420-foot centerfield fences at Fenway and Comerica parks. (By the way, I never played at Fenway or Comerica - just Embler.) When Penny said the outfield fences look short, I said, "You're right, these home runs are making the place look small."

So I jumped on the Worldwide Interweb and checked the stats, only to discover that Tropicana Field is not considered a hitter's paradise. In fact, it's not ranked in the Top 10 in terms of homers given up.

But I swear, from our seats behind the third-base dugout, when Kevin Pillar hit a solo shot in the eighth inning to give the Blue Jays the 7-6 win, the ball looked like it was shot from a howitzer.

Excellent game.

Oh, one other thing. During much of the 7-6 game, a torrential downpour with a lot of thunder and lightening were hammering St. Pete. We were indoors, and the temperature was 72 degrees.

                                                                      *





Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Trop


August 22 and 23
(Penny's Perspective)

We weren't expecting a lot from the Trop since it is at the bottom of most rankings of MLB parks.  I was particularly dreading it, because I was afraid I would feel the need to bring a "Free the Stingrays" sign. Yes, the tank was as small as I dreaded and they actually allow people to reach in and touch them. We avoided this area but did take a picture from above. And yes, it smells!







We had great seats! We sat in the same ones both nights we were there.





The gold seat signifies Wade Bogg's 3,000th hit in 1999. Although he was known as a singles and doubles hitter, his 3,000th hit was homer. He also earlier had hit the Devil Rays' first home run in franchise history. .








You can't see the #98 on this shirt but it signifies the first year the team joined the league. This big plastic guy is coming out of the wall above the first level concourse.



I really enjoyed the Ted Williams Museum, but not because of Ted Williams. The exhibits were really interesting! I especially enjoyed the League of their Own display and the entire section devoted to the Negro leagues. Oddly enough, Ted Williams did not play in Tampa Bay. He did retire there but apparently was a local hero. Of course, I had to take a picture of Cal Ripkin's display in the Hitters Hall of Fame, since I am an Orioles fan.







                                                                                                                                                                     A rarity in ballparks, salad! This one was especially good at Ducky's. The guy behind the counter told me there are only four ballparks that sell salad.





Al Lang Field, a staple in the Florida training camp world, is about a mile or so from the stadium. It is now the home of soccer's Tampa Bay Rowdies.





We couldn't visit Florida without a trip to the beach! This beautiful shot is at Treasure Island.



You can find Raymond at the entry before every game if you get there around 5:30. 


I have found that I have to ask Randy less questions about scoring. I love having my score book as a record of the games we have seen. The man sitting beside me even asked how I scored a play and then replied that was he thought that was the appropriate way to score the play, too. Now, if I could just figure out to recognize and correctly score a fielder's choice, I'd feel I was making even more progress. I always mess that one up!


We also enjoyed staying at the Cordova Inn. It is the oldest hotel in St. Pete and more like a bed and breakfast. The rooms are super small and I think the bathroom was a closet but I liked the atmosphere, the staff and the big porch to sit on.






Thumbs Up:

  • The Dome and AC!
  • Easy to get to location and parking.
  • Free programs.
  • Salad!
  • Vendors were around frequently but didn't really get in the way.
  • Plenty of help and very friendly staff. Well, except for one security guy the second night. Evidently, he hates his job. 
  • We were overloaded with canned noise, but there was just the right amount of information on the scoreboard. We also weren't bombarded with people in the audience playing games.
  • I liked that the mascot was visible before and during the game. 
  • I wouldn't really give the scoreboard a thumbs up, but it wasn't a thumbs down either. It was adequate. 
  • I was amazed by the D.J. that was a cat. Randy will explain that in his blog.


Thumbs Down:

  • The stadium is hard to get around. The layout is just plain difficult. You cannot walk around the entire stadium on any concourse. You have to maneuver steps and walk in the seating area to get to parts. I suspect this is part of the reason it falls at the bottom of almost every ranking.
  • The crowd is very quiet and sparse.
  • That stupid stingray tank. Free the stingrays!!!
  • The catwalks above the playing field were somewhat of a distraction and I'm not sure what purpose they served.
  • There is no outside entertainment at all. 
  • I enjoyed the museum, but if we hadn't know it was there we would have missed it. If you go, it is up the stairs across from the stingray tank. 
We enjoyed two really good games - with a lot of home runs - at the Trop!



Sunday, July 3, 2016

A trip to our local Minor League park to see the West Virginia Power

(Randy's and Penny's Perspective)
We took a hurried trip on Friday night to Appalachian Power Park in Charleston, W.Va., to see the West Virginia Power. It was one of those evenings where baseball served as a getaway.
For starters, some areas of West Virginia have been hit by horrible flooding, including a community called Elkview, which is roughly 15 miles north of Charleston. We are fortunate to not live in a flooded region, but in a state with a population of less than 2 million, there is always the chance that you'll know people who ARE dealing with flood issues. We do, and our thoughts and best wishes (and donations) are with those who were not as fortunate as we were.
There are some tough stories and circumstances, and we are thankful that we also live in a state that reacts fast when its folks are in trouble.
We stayed overnight in Charleston. It was difficult finding a room, because almost every hotel from Charleston to Huntington was full. FEMA and other disaster-relief workers seemed to comprise about half of the Charleston Marriott, where we stayed.
With life going on, however, most of the rest of the hotel included players, coaches and family members of players involved in the U.S. Youth Soccer Region 1 championship, which was being held in nearby Barboursville and Huntington.

On a personal level, we had a few layers of stress during the week. Our excellent cat, Dave Matthews, the world's finest cat (in our humble opinion), died on Tuesday.


The great Dave Matthews
Two days later, Penny let our dogs outside first thing in the morning. The dogs charged out the door and met head-on with a raccoon. Not good, a raging raccoon running around the neighborhood on a sunlit morning.
Jumping to the end of that story, with help from a local animal control specialist, the raccoon is no longer in the neighborhood.
Also during the week, Penny traveled to her hometown of Fayetteville, West Virginia, to attend the funeral of an uncle.

So Friday night, we decided to try and get our minds on something different and better. Baseball to the rescue.
Thanks to a friend at the Cipriani and Werner law firm, we had an invitation to use a suite and a couple of box seats above the first base line.
The evening was pleasant. The game was nothing special. We chatted with nice people throughout the blase 2-0 win by the Columbia Fireflies over the home team, the Power.
Much of the conversation revolved around our Major League ballpark tour. A gentleman sitting with us had been to 10 parks. He wanted to know our favorites, which listed as Orioles Park at Camden Yard, Turner Field, Wrigley Field, PNC Park and Comerica Park - all for differing reasons. His favorite has been PNC.
Penny has discovered that when she's not keeping a scorebook, she has trouble paying attention to the game.
When the last out happened, Penny was in the middle of a conversation, with her back to the field. She turned toward the field in time to see the Columbia players congratulating each other.
She asked, "Is it over?"
"Yep. A 2-0 loss for the home team."
"Oh, well. That was fun, though."
(Penny adds: In my defense, I also spent much of the night talking with a really sweet lady that I met in the box. Turns out I worked with her mom. Also, her nieces and nephews were students at my school. She is a teacher, I am a retired teacher and principal. We talked a lot about school.)


The racing pancakes must be a new addition.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

San Diego - A city that's easy to love ... With a team that can blow a big lead


June 2, 2016
Mariners 16, Padres 13

(Randy's Perspective)
I've fallen in love with places before. New Orleans, for example. I love New Orleans. The Mississippi River. Cafe de Monde. Jazz on the streets and in the clubs. Rice and beans and jambalaya. Pat O'Briens and Hurricanes. Streetcar rides through the Garden District. Preservation Hall. Jackson Square. Bourbon Street barkers. And those are just the touristy things.
Did you know you can buy a drink in one French Quarter establishment, carry it into a second establishment, and actually not piss off the proprietors of the second joint?
Yes, New Orleans is a grab bag of different.
Here's a second example - another place I kind of love, not as well known: It's  Hartwell Lake, a terrific body of water on the Northeast Georgia-South Carolina border. I probably fell in love with Hartwell Lake when I was 10 or 11 years old.
I grew up near this lake, learned to ski on it, spent a million hours on it as a teenager and young adult. More than 20 years ago, I even owned two small houses on its shoreline. I loved the lake life.
But no place is perfect, I surmise. New Orleans can be hotter than the hinges to hell's door in the summer and early fall. And there are a lotta, lotta drunks in the French Quarter, which can be fun sometimes and a little aggravating others.
Hartwell Lake rises and falls and gets really crowded on spring, summer and fall weekends. Also, those little houses I sold at a 20 percent profit are now worth - I kid you you not - between three and four times what I sold them for. Now that's disheartening.
The point, again, is that no place is perfect. That's what I thought.

Then came San Diego.
Penny and I traveled to San Diego, for the second time in the past month combining a visit with one of our kids and a Major League Baseball game.
Let me just say up front, we had a great time at Petco Park and saw a historic game - the largest comeback in Seattle Mariners history.
But, first, about San Diego.
With Penny's son (my witty, observant stepson) Derek as our full-time guide (and his friend, Karen, and his fabulously well-trained pit bull, Sheba, as part-time guides), here's what we discovered in San Diego.
  • The weather was, and apparently almost always is, spectacular.
  • The views from every place we visited - including Coronado, Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach, La
    The Star Bar, in the Gas Lamp District, found Derek and Penny
    Jolla, Soledad Mountain, just to name a few - were also spectacular.
  • North Park and Normal Heights are cool neighborhoods and a great place for one of your kids on a budget to live. The neighborhoods have no shortage of high-quality, affordable restaurants, interesting shops and a lot of brew pubs. We spent eight hours on Sunday walking these neighborhoods, stopping occasionally for food or beer or to listen to some live music.
  • The Gas Lamp District downtown is comprised of block after block of (once again) high-quality, affordable restaurants, interesting shops and great bars - and the district offers a lot of energy after dark.
  • There are a lot of outstanding Mexican restaurants in San Diego.
  • Dogs are almost as welcome as humans.
  • There are lots of places to walk, run and ride a skateboard, if any of that attracts you. We rented kayaks and paddled the waters of an enormous marina in Point Loma. We got great views of downtown San Diego from the harbor. 
San Diego is hilly and breezy, and the breeze is always pleasant, unlike - as Penny pointed out - the 25-mph gales accompanying 55-degree temperatures that scream: We are San Francisco.
We even got to chill on the beach at La Jolla and watch Derek surf.
When not watching Derek and the other surfers, we could look to our right and see some of those fabulous Pacific cliffs that I had only seen on television and in movies.
Penny and I are at home in the mountains of West Virginia.
But... I have to agree with my fabulous wife, who said sometime mid-day on our third day in San Diego: "I could move here."

Before we saw the beaches and experienced most of the bars and the Mexican restaurants, we hit the ballpark. Petco Park. This is park No. 20 for us. Two-thirds of the way home to seeing every Major League stadium in America.
One of the problems with assessing ballparks is that every park in America is really special and good in its own way. Even Oakland, though some might debate.
So when you get to No. 20, you know there is some sameness in the branding of all stadiums. You're usually going to get:
  • A park with character, one that looks like a baseball stadium, not like the cookie-cutter, multi-purpose houses that were Veterans, Three Rivers, Riverfront, Atlanta-Fulton County, (old) Busch stadiums and the Astrodome.
  • A park that tries to tie in a local theme.
  • A park that has decent sight lines, with no massive beams to obstruct views.
  • A park that seeks to have decent, eclectic concessions.
  • A park that brings fans closer to the action.

You get all those things at Petco. There is also the extremely odd presence of a building in the left-field-line corner of the park, right by the foul pole. It is the Western Metal Supply Company building. The short story is that building was declared a national landmark in 1978, and -try as they might - the Padres couldn't tear it down.
So they build around it.
In the perfect baseball architectural world, the Western Metal Supply Company building would give Petco a Camden Yards feel, where the warehouses are as much a part of the ballpark as hecklers behind the visitors' dugout.
It doesn't quite work. Almost. Not quite.
Penny seemed to think the building looks totally out of place (and she loooves Camden Yard). I stared and stared at the Supply Company's three-story building. I wanted to make it work but couldn't quite get there.
Speaking of hecklers, San Diego has a famous one: Harry the Heckler, who's been sitting on the third-base side for decades. He's considered the most obnoxious heckler in baseball.

Before getting to the game itself, I have to mention that for the second time in our past three road trips, I don't have a long history of memories with a team. Eighteen of 20 places we've visited, I have vivid memories of the teams we saw: things I learned or saw on TV or admired about a team.
The Texas Rangers were the first to bring me little to no nostalgia. The Padres are the second.
That lack of history seems a little odd, even to me, because the player in my lifetime that I admired almost above all others was a Padre. He was Tony Gwynn, Mr. Padre.
Gwynn was the Ted Williams of the late 20th century. The guy was a hitting machine. He had a lifetime average better than .330, could hit to all field, won a bunch of gold gloves and was a genuine and nice guy, according to all things I have heard and read.
Gwynn loved San Diego so much he spent his entire career there. He refused better money just to stay in San Diego.
Although loyal to San Diego, the Padres didn't reward Gwynn with great teams to play with. The Padres have been far more mediocre than good. Occasionally, they made pennant runs. The Padres have competed in two World Series: 1984 and 1998. They lost both.

So with that kind of franchise history, what happened against the Mariners shouldn't have been a surprise.
The Padres led by 10 runs after five innings. Yes, 10 runs. 12-2. There was a four-run first inning and a seven-run fifth inning. This deal was over. We even discussed the almost unthinkable - leaving after the eighth inning.
I was trying to remember if I'd ever witnessed live a seven-run inning. I remember that yes, Penny and I saw the Blue Jays drop seven on the Red Sox in Fenway. But still, seven in an inning is amazing. Padres centerfielder Jon Jay was 5 for 6 on the night. Sweet.
So.... we actually HAD seen a seven-run inning.
We had not, however, witnessed a nine-run inning, which the Mariners posted in the seventh. The nine-run seventh followed a five-run sixth inning. So if you're scoring at home, as they say, the Seattle Mariners went from a 12-2 deficit to a 16-12 lead.
Although it seemed meaningless at the time, Mariners rightfielder Nelson Cruz hit a gargantuan home run in the fourth inning.
In the end, the Mariners won 16-13. Even friendly, laid-back San Diego booed its bullpen.
Other than booing the bullpen, the home crowd was pretty quiet. An oddly large contingent of Mariners fans was anything but quiet as run after run after run kept crossing the plate.
It appeared from our first-base-line vantage point that even Harry the Heckler went quiet.











Saturday, June 18, 2016

Dog Days of San Diego




(Penny's Perspective)

What could be better for a dog lover than being interviewed petting a comfort dog at the Denver airport, spending four days with my grand-doggies, AND having a ticket on Bark in the Park night at Petco Park? That was so awesome, and add to that I've found a new favorite city: San Diego. That was a great trip. 




It was so much fun to see all these fabulous dogs at our first visit to Petco Park. 



Petting the comfort dog in the Denver airport.


My grand-dogs Juan and Sheba.


Mr. PadreI've loved almost all of our baseball trips. This one I especially loved. I hadn't seen my son, Derek, since I was out there in January so it was great to spend time with him. I love, love, love San Diego, so I was happy to share that city with Randy. The food in San Diego is a dream for a vegetarian (me) and a vegan (Derek). Even Randy found some food he liked, although he still draws the line at anything made with tofu. We had some Mexian food to die for. I see more potato tacos in my future!

A very California feel inside the park.

Beautiful views from all around. 


It was a beautiful night, if you go, take a sweater, it gets really cool after dark. 


The scoreboard was huge. Once I figured out where everything was, I really liked it. 

Our host for the San Diego trip. My son, Derek.


Yes, we have on jackets and it is summer!

Retired numbers.

A replica of the USS Nimitz. 

I love this wall of all MLB players who have served our country.

There is no shortage of things to do in San Diego. A visit to the Gaslamp District is a must. There are places to eat and bars everywhere!


Kayaking at Point Loma harbor. 

San Diego is a vegetarian/vegan heaven. This raw walnut taco was so good!


Derek and his friend, Karen.


We love dive bars, and this one didn't disappoint. The Star Bar was named one of the country's top 20 dive bars and is within walking distance of the park.