TBtB: Toronto Blue Jays

We leave the states to visit our friends to the north. Canada’s team began play in the futuristic SkyDome in 1989, though it got its current Rogers Centre name, complete with Canadian spelling, in 2005.

For the record, it was just SkyDome. I’m not sure why that bugs people. We don’t say the Wrigley Field or the Willets Point. But call a park a dome, and everybody, including Matt Johnson, has to add the The.

While a precursor to the throwback stadium craze launched by Camden, it did kick off some of the trends in new ballpark construction, such as amenities beyond concessions, restrooms and luxury boxes. The most notable new concept was the hotel with windows overlooking the stadium, a feature I’m sure the late Dick Williams must have appreciated.

Rogers Centre is one of the two remaining ballparks covered with turf, along with Suncoast Dome. The Jays have made overtures of replacing it with grass, though earlier this decade they did the next closest thing by installing a slower turf that allowed Kevin Pillar to kick up black pellets every time he made a diving catch, which is quite often.

Ballpark History

Built: 1989

Capacity: 49,282

Name:  Rogers Centre (2005-present). Before that, SkyDome (1989-2005).

Other ballparks used by club in its current city: Exhibition Stadium, 1977-1989.

Distinctive Features:  The sport’s first fully working retractable roof; 70 rooms of Renaissance Toronto Hotel overlooking field; millions in artwork above entrances; view of the CN Tower when the roof is lifted.

Ballpark Highlights:
In the ballpark’s maiden season, Jose Canseco hit a homer into the previously unreached top deck during Game 4 of the ALCS, helping the A’s roll to their second straight AL pennant.

In 1993, Joe Carter lived out the dream of every child who ever picked up a bat, turning a ninth-inning deficit into a World Series victory with a three-run homer off Mitch Williams. The blast capped one of the wackiest Fall Classics ever, made the Blue Jays the first team to repeat as champs since the Bronx Zoo Yanks of ‘77-78 and gave us our last taste of autumn baseball until 1995.

On July 1, 1997, Pedro Martinez outdueled Pat Hentgen in a 2-1 Montreal Expos victory, the first game in Major League history featuring two Canadian clubs.

On Opening Day 2003, Blue Jays catcher’s Ken Huckaby’s awkward catch and tag at third resulted in a broken Jeter, to the consternation of starlets and sportswriters everywhere. Four years later at that same base, Jeter’s teammate Alex Rodriguez got some measure of revenge on the hosts, distracting and infuriating the Jays’ Howie Clark on a pop-up by yelling, “I got it.”

In the deciding game of the 2015 ALDS, the Rangers and Blue Jays played one of the strangest postseason contests of the Wild Card era. The Rangers took a 3-2 lead in the top of the seventh when Rougned Odor alertly scampered home on a toss from catcher Russel Martin that hit Shin-Soo Choo’s bat and rolled in between the mound and third, unleashing havoc in Toronto. The Jays responded with four runs in the bottom of the frame, spurred by three consecutive Ranger errors and capped by Jose Bautista’s mammoth homer to left-center, which was followed by a memorable bat chuck to punctuate the blow.

TBtB: Cincinnati Reds

The home of the Cincinnati Reds is perhaps the most overly ambitiously named park of the new entries. It’s no more the Great American Ball Park than the young adult book collecting digital dust on my hard drive is the Great American Novel.

I’ve been there a few times. It’s nice enough, and the steamshippish structure in centerfield is a sensible fit given the Ohio River and its Tall Stacks sit just beyond right field. But it’s simply not going to top many favorite lists. It’s an upgrade on Riverfront, and the Reds Museum is nice, but the overall effect is just not that special. On the other hand, it separates ball and park, calling to mind the rarely seen Primate, Lance (Christopher) Linden.

It’s too bad. Cincy remains a great baseball town, and it treats Opening Day with the reverence that most important of days deserves. It’s damn near a holiday in the Queen City (non-Charlotte division).

Chairman’s Ruling: Following the Pete Rose permanent ban is strongly encouraged, but will not be mandated. We don’t think there will be any serious references to Charlie Hustle from our team of nominators unless Bear makes one of his infrequent forays in here.

Ballpark History

Built:  2003

Capacity: 42,319

Name:  Great American Ball Park.

Other ballparks used by club in its current city:  Got a minute: Bank Street Grounds, 1882-83; League Park 1 1884-1893; League Park II 1894-1901; Palace of the Fans, 1902-1911; Crosley Field, 1912-1970; Riverfront Stadium, 1970-2002.

Distinctive Features: A gap in the stands between home and third, allowing views in and out of the park from downtown; centerfield smokestacks; murals and sculptures of Reds’ history, including Reds Legends of Crosley Field; Reds Hall of Fame and Museum; the possibility of hitting the ball into another state (like the airport, the river is in Kentucky).
Ballpark Highlights:
Virtually every home game for the better part of six years, Marty Brennaman bitched about Adam Dunn.

Spurred by antagonistic comments and unwelcome shinguard taps from Brandon Phillips and the general hardassery of Yadi Molina, the Reds and Cards emptied the benches before the first pitch of their NL Central showdown in 2010. Fortunately, the cooler heads of Tony LaRussa and Dusty Baker were there to keep things from getting out of hand.

Later that year, in their only home playoff game, the Reds were blanked 3-0 by the Phillies’ Cole Hamels. Hell, at least they got a few hits.

On June 13, 2012, Joey Votto showed us what humans are capable of (though we also wouldn’t mind a few swings sprinkled in there), if they truly put their mind to it.

On June 6, 2017, waiver wire pickup Scooter Gennett became the 18th player to homer four times in a single game.

Last night, Homer Bailey tried to pitch without the ball. Given his recent success when he has a ball in hand, it was probably worth considering.

My New Favorite A.J.*

Until Wednesday evening, I never really thought much about Adam Jones. My knowledge of him was pretty much limited to a) he was dealt to Baltimore during Seattle’s decades of horrific management, b) my youngest son picked up one a faux No. 9 jersey when we were taking my oldest son to college a few years back and c) he was a centerfielder with a nice stick whose defense should have moved him to a corner a long time ago.

That was last month. Today, Adam Jones is one of my favorite players in the sport. All because he followed the less-traveled path originally championed by former First Lady Nancy Reagan. He said “No.”

Tuesday was the major league trade deadline, when contenders try to shore up weaknesses on the field or on the mound for the stretch drive. They do this by dealing with the league’s dregs, who hope to land some low-priced prospects or a lottery ticket A-baller or some simple salary relief for the last two months of the campaign.

Jones’s club, the Orioles, had already entered fire sale mode before the deadline struck, having dealt All-Star infielder Manny Machado to the Dodgers, Jonathan Schoop to the Brewers and Don’t Break Glass In Case of Tie reliever Zach Britton to the Yankees. The dreadful O’s were also shopping Jones to teams looking for a fourth outfielder or bench bat.

But Jones has something that none of those other Orioles possessed – the right to refuse a trade. By virtue of his 10 years in the big leagues and five with his current club, Jones can nix any trade involving him. The Orioles can cut him, but they can’t simply deal him to the A’s for a bullpen arm, at least not without his say so.

And they didn’t get it. Not to anyone. Jones was going to play these last two months in the same city, same ballpark, where he’s plied his trade for the past 11 seasons. God Bless him.

“When players walked out years ago and walked the picket lines and did all that stuff, they did all that for reasons like right now. I earned this and it’s my decision. I don’t have to explain it to nobody. It’s my decision,” Jones told the media following Tuesday’s game.

Virtually every year, players such as Jones are not just asked to waive their no-trade provisions so they can be sent to a contender down the stretch, but pressured to do so by the teams, the local media and the fans. “Why wouldn’t you want to play in a pennant race?” is the usual refrain. And, most players go along, accepting a deal without comment. Fred McGriff did this years ago when he was reluctant to leave his hometown Rays to join the Cubs’ chase for a pennant. A decade later, Ryan Dempster was roasted by Cubs fans when he changed his mind about a deal to Atlanta (he eventually signed off on a deal to Texas).

This is wrong, on many levels.

Players understand that getting swapped is part of the package when you play in MLB. It’s one of the trade offs for being exceedingly well compensated. But the opportunity to refuse a trade, as Jones said, was a hard-won right. It was the impetus of the Curt Flood case that ultimately launched free agency. The Cardinal outfielder wasn’t looking to bolt St. Louis – he didn’t want to go to Philly, with its questionable racial history.

Moreover, the only life that’s truly affected by a swap is the players involved. They’re the ones being relocate to a new town, for a short period of time, on a moment’s notice. If they have a contractual right to reject such a forced move, why the hell should they be pressured by the team that employs them or the fans that root for them? The fans and media have virtually no real stake in the outcome, and the teams much less real share.

Finally, you’ve got this unanswered question: if my boss tells me he no longer wants my services, why should I make it easy on him if that’s not what I wish. Why should I do anything to help what will, upon agreement, become my former team?

And Jones is right about another thing. He owes no one an explanation for his decision. Rather, Jones and big leaguers like him owe their teams one thing – their best effort every night. Jones has delivered that to the Orioles franchise for more than 10 seasons. All he wants is two more months to keep doing that. Hats off to him for resisting the pressure to give that up.

 

*My previous favorite A.J. was, of course, White Sox Super Pest A.J. Pierzynski. Baseball is much better with villains, and no one in my baseball lifetime played that role with more zeal than Pierzynski.

Baseball, Eastern European Style

I will undoubtedly see a better-played baseball game this year. I will most likely see one that’s as compelling. But I won’t have more fun at one.

On Sunday afternoon, I traveled to Whiting, home of Oil City Stadium. I was there to take in the second semifinal of the inaugural International Baseball Challenge, a four-team tournament featuring teams from the United States, Serbia, Croatia and Slovakia.

The game in question was the semifinal tilt between those two historic rivals, in the truest sense of the phrase, the Serbs and the Croats. The Serbian club pushed across two runs in the top of the ninth to eke out a 6-4 win over their former mates back in the old Yugoslav League.
IMG_5505

Serbia’s starting pitcher Christian Bokich delivers a pitch to Croatia’s Matko Dabic Sunday at Oil City Stadium. Part of the BP Refinery that gives the place its name (and the BP cash that made it possible) serves as the ballpark’s backdrop.

Serbia took the lead in the second, fifth and seventh innings, only to see the Croats bounce back to tie the score each time. In the top of the ninth, Serbia’s Bobby Suder reached on a two-based error leading off the frame, then advanced to third on an errant pickoff attempt by Croatian catcher Phil Smith. Tireless pitcher Antonio Horvatic, who went the distance, kept him there by getting a pop-up to Smith and a strikeout. But the Serbs went ahead when Ronald Krsolovic made a diving stop on a one-hopper from Filip Banjac, then fired wide of first, the team’s third error of the frame. Connor Tomasic’s third hit plated the final run.

The tournament was an interesting mix of teams. The Serbian National Team was about half native sons, with the rest of the club comprised of Americans with one or more parents who immigrated to the States, back when that was still allowed. Four of the kids were Northwest Indiana products, including one young lad who was playing in the same park where he played his high school games (and where my youngest son got a start on the bump in the back end of a double dip this spring).

The Croats, on the other hand, were mostly local products, with just a few exceptions. The guys were mostly split between Split and rest of Croatia, though sadly none were from the No. 1 place on my global must-visit list, Dubrovnik.

Interestingly, the Slovak club eliminated from the competition a night earlier (with the Region’s all-time greatest player, Kenny Lofton, in attendance) was comprised entirely of ballplayers who grew up in the back half of the old Czechoslovakia. One player, Jakub Izold, was a resident of Phoenix, but only because he stayed here after his two-run year with Cincy as the first born-and-raised Slovak* to sign with a major league club.

The game attracted a healthy crowd, with a particularly strong showing of Serbian backers. They waved the Serb flag, sported their Serbija jerseys  and, upon victory, broke into an impromptu kolo, a line dance to a Polka (or Serbka, I suppose) tune. There were fewer Croatian-Americans in the park, though some could be seen sporting the country’s traditional Italian restaurant tablecloth attire. They did seem to have the support of the Slovak team members in attendance.

The Serbian singing and dancing was undoubtedly even heartier a few hours later, when the Serbs defeated the U.S. team (which was essentially the Northwest Indiana Oilmen, a local team in the Midwest Collegiate League) 12-5 to capture the inaugural championship. I didn’t catch the title game, though I’m a lock to be back in the stadium when the second installment is contested next year.

*While no native Croats or Serbs have ever played big league ball, Hall of Very Good Pitcher Jack Quinn was born in modern-day Stefurov (then Stefuro, Hungary), while fellow veteran Elmer Valo was a native of Rybnik. However, unlike Isold who did all of his formative baseballing in Slovakia, the earlier gents arrived in the U.S. as children.

TBtB: Minnesota Twins

As with just about everything else in the Twin City, the new stadium there sports the Target brand, a company headquartered there, not in France. Surely, the metropolis that gave us Husker Du, Prince and Craig Finn can do a little better on a name for its nifty new park*.

Unlike their wimpy football-playing brethren, the Twins gave a big middle finger to the notoriously challenging Upper Midwest weather by opting against a lid for Target Field. If they ever enjoy a return to the glory of the Kirby and Hrby years, we’ll see if they (and MLB) come to regret that decision.

I took my daughter, wife and a temporary family member to the Twin Cities for a college visit back in 2016. During the mandatory stop at the Mall of America, I found the old home plate plaque, seen below, from Metropolitan Stadium. Saving home plate’s spot on planet earth should be federally mandated when any old ballpark comes tumbling down. It’s just the right thing to do.

*Which, the bottom part tells me, has now been open for eight seasons. That doesn’t seem possible.

Ballpark History

Built: 2010

Capacity: 38,649

Name:  Target Field 2010-present.

Other ballparks used by club in its current city:  Metropolitan Stadium, 1961-1981; Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, 1982-2009.

Distinctive Features: Double-decker bullpens in left-center; the major’s only bonfire in the roof deck; illuminated Minnie and Paul logo; small ballpark footprint in the city’s Warehouse District.

Ballpark Highlights:
On Oct. 3, 2010, the Twins lost a 5-2 decision to New York to fall behind 0-2 in the ALDS, proving the club could be just as inept in outdoor home games with the Bronx Bombers as they were inside.

In 2014, Mike Trout went 2-3 to claim his first of back-to-back All-Star Game MVPs in a 5-3 American League victory.

In the final game of his best big league season, Phil Hughes fanned five and walked none in eight innings against the Angels. Hughes finished the 2014 campaign with 186 strikeouts and 16 walks, setting the major league record for the best K:BB ratio. He also came up 1/3 of an inning short of triggering a $500,000 bonus for throwing 210 innings, declining a later offer from Twins skipper Ron Gardenhire to pitch an inning in relief.

In 2017, the first college football game was played at the ballpark, a contest between the St. Thomas Tommies and the St. John’s Jonnies, setting us up for our next renaming project – Minnesota’s Division III college teams.

TBtB: Arizona Diamondbacks

 

Following the lead of the Rangers, the Diamondbacks owners were in negotiations over the conditions of their 20-year-old ballpark, which I like to think of as Miller Park Southwest (I’ve only been to Miller, but they strike me as pretty similar. Their retractable roof set-ups look alike from my screen, and the Bernie-only slide in Milwaukee is countered by the pool built in the desert for inebriated Phoenicians and celebrating Dodgers). That issue appears to be settled. At least for now. You can never say never, since there’s no quit in extortionist.

I do have high hopes the name you guys come up with will be a good one. The Diamondbacks, while a little long, is a great baseball nickname, meeting my two main requirements (uniqueness and local relevance), and as a bonus, it’s got a baseball term tucked in. Along those lines, despite arriving on the scene much later than the rest of the major facilities, Phoenix’s Sky Harbor is the best-named airport in America, or at least the best since the tongue-tickling Idlewild became one of 11,232 things in New York to change its name to JFK in the mid-60s.

Of course, the club also represents one of the true sources of destruction of the American ideal. Our problem isn’t in the ability to name things, but nickname them. Two perfectly suitable diminutives exist for Diamondbacks, either Backs or Snakes, and Diamonds would do in a pinch. Instead, we get the thoroughly artless D-Backs. If the Pittsburgh club was born near the turn of this century, instead of the last one, we’d undoubtedly be eschewing Bucs for P-Rates. Blecch.

Ballpark History

Built: 1998

 

Capacity: 48,686

 

Name:  Chase Field 2006-present. Formerly called Bank One Ballpark (2000-05).

Other ballparks used by club in its current city: None, though the area is rife with spring training stadia given the Cactus League is now entirely a Valley production.

Distinctive Features: The skinny tie of dirt that connects the pitcher’s mound to home; swimming pool beyond right field; first retractable roof stadium paired with natural grass; like everything else in Phoenix, working AC. The Diamondbacks annually rank first in the Fan Cost Index, which estimates the average price for a family of four to attend a game. That’s a nice feature.

Ballpark Highlights:

On Oct 3, 1999, Jay Bell tripled and homered to lead the Diamondbacks to a 10-3 win over visiting San Diego, the 100th victory of the campaign for a team just one season removed from its first year of existence. Of the sport’s other 13 expansion franchises, only five (New York Mets, LA Angels, Seattle, Houston and Kansas City) have ever won 100 in any season.

On May 8, 2001, Randy Johnson fanned 20 Cincinnati Reds before exiting after nine innings of the eventual 4-3, 11-inning Diamondback win. Because the game lasted more than nine, even if the Unit didn’t, the feat isn’t listed in the record book alongside Clemens, Wood and Scherzer.

Luis Gonzalez’s cued a single over the head of a drawn-in Derek Jeter off future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera to cap a two-run ninth-inning rally and one of the best World Series of the last 30 years. The fourth-year Diamondbacks won their only title despite Bob Brenly’s dogged efforts to prevent that from happening.

In 2006, Jake Peavy and six relievers combined to shut out Mexico in the United States’ inaugural game of the World Baseball Classic.

In 2009, Opening Day starter Brandon Webb, who had placed first, second and second in voting for the three previous NL Cy Young awards, was lifted after four innings. He would never throw another pitch in the big leagues, thus retiring as the greatest Diamondbacks-only player in club history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

TBtB: Houston Astros

Exhibit A in the Trouble with Naming Rights. Minute Maid Park was formerly known as Enron Field, until that energy trading company became the poster child for corporate malfeasance. Contrast that with Houston’s former home. The greatest potential embarrassment for the Astrodome was if George Jetson’s dog started humping Mr. Spacely’s leg.

While Enron was a crappy company, it was a pretty solid corporate name for a ballpark. It rolled off the tongue quite nicely, particularly given how you could squint your ears and think it was Home Run Field. Its replacement makes you think of Florida, even if the corporate office for Minute Maid is right there in the 281.

As with the Fish Tank, Houston went a little overboard on the quirk, but in a location where it doesn’t necessarily fit as well as it does in South Beach. You have the railroad to nowhere above left field, and, Tal’s Hill, now leveled, in center. I guess you have to try a little harder when you’re replacing the Eighth Wonder, even if the old place had gotten quite long in the tooth.

Unlike the recent batch of five parks where the old name was a strong contender, I doubt MM is even nominated here. It’s just that useless.

Ballpark History

Built: 2000

Capacity: 41,168

Name: Minute Maid Park, 2002-present. Before that, Enron Field 2000-02; Astros Field, a few months in 2002.

Other ballparks used by club in its current city:  Astrodome, 1965-1999; Colt Stadium, 1962-64.

Distinctive Features: The train honoring the site’s history as Houston’s Union Station; the left field wall scoreboard below the Crawford Boxes; Home Run Pump in center, tallying Astros homers hit in the park since its opening; Tal’s Hill and flagpole, (2000-1916), the 30-degree incline and in-play pole, both cursed by a generation of NL centerfielders.

Ballpark Highlights:
A disputed ninth-inning home run by Brad Ausmus just cleared the pointless yellow line in left center, rallying the Astros from a five-run deficit in a 2005 NLDS game with Atlanta. Nine innings later, a Chris Burke homer gave the ’Stros a 7-6 win to claim the series in the longest playoff game in ML history.

Looking to close out the series, Brad Lidge gave up the Holy Shit Homer to Albert Pujols to keep the Cardinals alive in the rematch of the 2004 NLCS. Two nights later, the ’Stros would win Game 6 in St. Louee to earn their first Fall Classic appearance.

In the first World Series game played in Texas, Geoff Blum hit a 14th-inning home run off Ezequiel Astacio to propel the White Sox to a 7-5 victory. The following evening, the visitors finished off the sweep for their first title in 88 years.

On Opening Day 2013, the tank-mode hosts accidentally beat visiting Texas 8-2, marking their first game in the American League after 51 seasons in the Senior Circuit.

Alex Bregman’s 10th-inning single to center scored pinch-runner Derek Fisher to give Houston a 13-12 victory in Game 5 of the 2017 World Series. Three nights later, in Los Angeles, the Astros would claim their first world title.