Friday, February 27, 2009

Mets win -- twice! A new streak, without the shame.

I'm putting Josh Pahigian's "101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out" on hold for a day as I check out some glorious places Josh doesn't list -- the Mets' first two spring training games.

Considering I went from 1991 to last July without seeing the Mets win, I'm pretty excited about the three-game winning streak I'm now riding after seeing our team smackdown the Orioles in Fort Lauderdale then the Marlins in St. Lucie.

Dad was even luckier than I was. He snagged a foul ball at a Marlins' practice game, then won the grand prize in a Mets spin-the-wheel contest, landing us a signed Freddie Garcia jersey.

I'll have a full spring report, but right now I'd dead tired. Here are some photos to tide you over.

Fort Lauderdale Stadium is ancient, and showing the signs of Yankee Taint. This is likely the last year a team will train there.

Ryan Church relaxing between turns in the cage.

Mets win, 9-3!

Oliver Perez warms up in the bullpen.

Mets win, again, 9-0.

Dad wins, too! He's holding the jersey that until recently belonged to Freddy Garcia.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Baseball Place No. 20: Rose Park Wiffle Ball Complex, and Place 20A) Wrigley Field Wiffle Ball spot

Josh Pahigian takes us to Mishawaka, Ind. for some serious Wiffle Ball action.

The Rose Park Wiffle Ball Complex on the outskirts of South Bend – No. 20 in his “101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out” -- has 22 fields and an annual tournament for five-person teams.

I’m sure it’s fun. But it sounds pretty complicated. Maybe that’s why they call it a complex.

But Will and I used to have less-organized games in far grander locations. I offer:

Alternative Place No. 20A) Wrigley Field Wiffle Ball Court.

Will winds up against a "major-leaguer."

Here’s a neat story from the archives.

We were in Chicago to cover the final game at Comiskey Park, and arrived the day before because we snagged tickets for the final night game as well.

With some time on our hands before the game, we headed to Wrigley Field to check out the souvenir shops. To our great glee, we discovered a perfect strike zone painted on stadium wall along Waveland Avenue near Kenmore.

We were happily breaking off curves like Greg Maddux from the center of the street when two guys came up to us, amazed that we would be playing Wiffle Ball alongside Wrigley Field.

If he shows me a first pitch fastball, I'm taking him downtown.

They wanted to play, and when we hesitated they tried to impress us. One was tall and stocky, and claimed to have a cup of coffee with the 1987 World Champion Minnesota Twins, even flashed what appeared to be a championship ring.

The other was slender and dark, and claimed to be an actor with a role in "Bull Durham."Reporters are skeptical by nature, of course.I didn’t recognize the name of the guy who claimed to be a former Twin.

I had a pretty good knowledge of major leaguers since baseball card companies at the time issued extensive sets that included just about every player in the bigs as well as even minor prospects from the minors.
Hey, where are all the rooftop fans to watch our big game?

And Will is a walking baseball encyclopedia. In fact, if there was a contradiction between Will and the official baseball encyclopedia, I’d believe Will. And he didn’t recognize the name, either.

The guy did have a 1987 Twins ring, but that didn’t necessarily mean he was a player. Teams give rings to a lot of employees.

The other guy claimed to be an infielder in "Bull Durham," one of the guys on the mound when one of Nuke’s eyelids is clogged, Jose needs a live chicken to sacrifice and no one knows what to get Jimmy and Millie for their wedding. "Candle sticks," of course, was coach Larry Hockett’s answer.

The guy had the lines down pat, and we didn’t have any photos from the movie in hand for comparison purposes.This was a little icky. It seemed like the kind of lines guys would be spouting trying to pick up girls over a bottle of Bud at the Cubby Bear after the game.

We told them we were in town for the final Comiskey games — a very big deal, the hottest ticket in town — and they didn’t seem to believe us, either.

Will and I exchanged some skeptical glances. It’s not like we could openly debate this in front of them. Lacking proof, we decided to let them play. We even took some photos — just in case they were legit.

Although I must say the alleged Major-Leaguer couldn’t hit my nasty Wiffle knuckleball, making his claim that much more dubious. Note the photo, the knuckler is on the way!

He's getting the knuckler, taught to me by the master.

After playing for a while, the guys moved on, presumably to hoist those brews at the Cubby Bear.

"What do you think. Were they telling the truth?" I asked Will."Who knows?" Will said. "They may be lying. But we know for sure that we really are going to the final game at Comiskey.”

The Cubs have since renovated the bleaches and outside walls, and to our horror, we discovered that the strike zone is gone.

But that’s not to say you can’t bring some chalk – I said chalk, people – and make a new one. Just don’t hit any of the Tylers and Trixies. And be very suspect of guys who claim to be ballplayers and actors, but can’t hit a knuckleball.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Baseball Place No. 19: The Hank Aaron Home Run Wall; and No. 19A) Milwaukee County Stadium

Which is more important, a record broken or a record set?

Josh Pahigian takes us to Atlanta, where all that remains of Fulton County Stadium is a section of fence and wall marking the spot where Hank Aaron hit Al Downing’s fastball into history.

The exact area where the Hammer passed the Babe is spot No. 19 in the “101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out.

An important place, to be sure. And I wish the Mets had left us with a standing portion of Shea, or even the mound so future generations can stand on Tom Seaver’s hill.

But other than passing through Atlanta on the Interstate, I’ve never been able to get to see in person the spot where 715 flew.

I did, however, get to see the place where Hank hit his final home run, No. 755, which stood for 30 years as the record, and remains today the untainted milestone.

Alternative Place No. 19A) Milwaukee County Stadium.

The big ballpark from the 1950s was home to Robin Yount, Paul Molitor and Ted Higuera when Rich, Mark and I arrived in 1989, the day after the infamous visit to Comiskey Park.

But we found a nice tribute to Aaron in the stadium, where on July 20, 1976 Hank took Angel’s hulrer Dick Drago deep, the Hammer’s final blast.

Aaron, of course, began his career with the Milwaukee Braves, moved with the team to Atlanta after the 1966 season, and returned in 1975 as a Brewer for two years.

Our first impression of the stadium was that it had the best-smelling parking lot ever. I didn’t know just how many people fired up their grills to tailgate before a baseball game.

The stadium itself was grey and brick, unspectacular to the eye. But it was comfortable and friendly. It was nothing fancy. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The Brewers let us have all kinds of fun.

But the old yard gave us everything we wanted. Seats were close to the action, the brats with the secret sauce were as good as advertised, and everyone was friendly.

Alas, County Stadium came to an end in 2001 when Miller Park opened next door. But there are still some lasting tributes to the stadium and Aaron.

First, there is a statue of Hank, along with other important Brewers.

Then, on the spot where County once stood, the team built Helfaer Field, a little league ball park. The infield doesn’t match up exactly, as you can find the spot where the County home place once sat along the concourse.

Here’s the best part. Not only is the field scaled down, so are the prices for the brats and soda at least that was the case when we went several years ago.

It seemed like a pretty good way of preserving a part of the historic grounds without turning them into a parking lot. Are you listening, Mets?

Baseball Place No. 18: Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum

Baltimore was a stop on our epic baseball road trip of 1991, and we packed our short time there with all kinds of side trips.

Aside from a game at Memorial Stadium and an under-construction tour of Camden Yards – expect those adventures to follow sometime in the coming weeks – we made sure we hit a couple museums along the way.

One of those, the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, was tapped by Josh Pahigian as spot No. 18 in his “101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out.”

The Babe was born in a humble row house at 216 Emery Street, a short walk from Camden Yards. You can follow a trail of painted baseballs to get from the stadium from the museum.

The museum opened in 1974 with help from the Bambino’s family, and grew to include artifacts from the Orioles and the Colts, and even the Maryland Baseball Hall of Fame.

Mickey Tettleton's performance-enhancers were said to be Froot Loops.

But those items in 2005 were moved to the Sports legends at Camden Yards museum, prompting the Ruth museum to revert its focus solely on the former Red Sox and Braves player, who might have spent some time with another team whose name escapes me.

Baltimore was a nice place, and we enjoyed some of the other sites. We took a quick walk through the outdoors part of the B&O Railroad Museum, and then drove up to Federal Hill Park, with its spectacular views of the city.

There's a chance John, Will and John were tired of posing for me my the time we got to Federal Hill park. But the Inner Harbor was fantastic.

We also explored the Inner Harbor, searching for the perfect crab cakes.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Baseball Place No. 17: McCoy Stadium; and No. 17A) Beehive Field

The problem with Pawtucket is that it’s so close to Boston.

That would be fine if you lived in Pawtucket. But we lived on the New York side of Connecticut, so if we were going to drive that far to see a ballgame, we were going to head all the way to Fenway.

Josh Pahigian, however, did stop at Pawtucket, and it sounds like McCoy Stadium is a pretty neat place. He made it stop 17 of his “101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out.”

The grandstand was built in 1942 as part of the Works Progress Administration, and it’s famous for two things.

First, for the portraits of PawSox players who were promoted up the road.
The other is that it is the home of the longest game ever, a 33-innings affair in 1981 against the Rochester Red Wings, which started in April and was resumed in June, with the Sox winning 3-2. Wade Boggs, Cal Ripken Jr. and future Met Bob Ojeda all have their names in the box score.

While we never made it to Pawtucket, we did have some minor-league adventures in New England. Some were exciting, but one turned tragic. And they took place at:

Baseball Place No. 17A, Beehive Field in New Britain, Conn.

The home of the New Britain Red Sox was only five years old when we first visited in 1988, but I would have sworn it was much older.

The park was small park was mostly wooden with some metal bleachers extending along the base paths. The bleachers were topped by a short chain-link fence. Remember that for later.

The park gets its goofy-but-cool name from Joe “Buzz” Buzas, the executive who brought the team to the area.

I had never been to a minor-league game before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The park was way smaller than I imagined – it seated 4,700 – and I’d never been that close to the action.

Professional ball, cheap snacks, and free parking made this a worthy expansion of my baseball horizons.

The concession stands – well, the stand, singular – was behind home plate on the other side of the grandstand. During my second game, I had just paid for my hot dog and soda when a foul ball flew over the screen and hit me on one bounce.

I retrieved it with only minor spillage – my first and only foul ball!

Another game had a pretty horrible event. Rich and I were sitting along the first base sign, and noticed a guy sitting atop the chain-link fence that is supposed to be a backrest for the last row. He was talking to a camera man.

Rich and I decided to make a snack run, and walked through the exit under the stands.
We heard a sound I’ll never forget. We turned around and saw someone on the asphalt path. It was the guy who was sitting atop the fence. He must have fallen backward, and it was at least 20 feet to the ground.

Rich ran over to help the guy, I went to get help. Technically, I ran screaming incoherently down the path.

I know this because we saw video on the news that night. The camera man must have turned to the path when the man fell.

Police and an ambulance came, and the game went on even through much of the small crowd was now standing on the top of the bleachers looking over the top. We called our paper, and later found out the man died.

The man was sitting atop the fence along the back of the bleachers.

We went to another game at Beehive a month later, and there were marks still on the pavement from where he fell and the paramedics worked. The brought back a lot of sad feelings, and we didn’t go to another game there.

The Red Sox didn’t stay too much longer, either, moving to Trenton in 1995. Another team, sadly named the Hardware City Rock Cats were born that year, and played at Beehive for a year while the new New Britain Stadium was built next door.

Beehive still stands, but the little ballpark is used mostly by the New Britain High School team. My proudly obtained Eastern League ball remains on display in the Baseball Room, still my only caught foul ball.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Baseball Place No. 16: Mickey Mantle's Restaurant

We all have skeletons in our closets — deep, dark and twisted actions that we would love to disavow or forget.

But sometimes the stain of shame is too great. The memory will rise up out of nowhere and poke like dull wooden skewer.

It is said that confession is good. Now, gentle reader, I shall open the closet door and just pray that you do not think differently of me.

Here goes.

I once went to Mickey Mantle’s restaurant.

It gets worse.

I bought a T-shirt.

Darn you, Josh Pahigian, for naming Mickey Mantle’s as place No. 16 in the "101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out."

I was 25, young and foolish — but not as foolish as Michael Phelps and ARod.

I don’t recall the occasion, and I have only a slight memory of walking into the place, located between 5th and 6th Avenues on Central Park South.

And I have no idea what possessed me to purchase a T-shirt.

I’m not saying this isn’t horrible, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. The name "Yankees" did not appear anywhere. I can proudly say that a Yankee hat has never sat atop my head.

It was a dark blue shirt with Mantle’s signature in white, and the frieze from their stadium.

Maybe I was recalling that magical day in 1985 when Tom Seaver claimed that stadium for his 300th win. I just don’t know.

Josh talks about memorabilia lining the walls, but I recall none of it. The place had only been open a year, and I’m not sure any of that was up. I remember it being kind of dark. I bought the shirt and skedaddled.

Now don’t go calling me a Jeter-hugger. I renounced the shirt and all it represents. It’s long-gone.

And as a penance I wear a much better shirt to places near and far.

I speak, of course, of the classic "Faith and Fear and Flushing" T-shirt, stylish with its Mets’ retired numbers boldly placed across the chest.

And not too many blocks north of Mantle’s place, I spent a much nicer time in 2006 with Faith co-writer Greg Prince at a place on Amsterdam Ave. called The Dead Poet.

I was attending an education writer’s conference, and a rare Saturday day game foiled my plans to get to Shea. Greg went, and joined me later for dinner and fellowship.

A table on the street on a beautiful, busy September evening talking baseball with a friend absolutely trumps sneaking into an old Yankee’s greasy spoon!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Baseball Place: 15: Durham Athletic Park; and Baseball Place No. 15A: Durham Bulls Athletic Park

The editors at the Greensboro, N.C. newspaper sent me off to lunch with a couple reporters when I interviewed for a job there in 1999.

The reporters were both Northerners like me, and their role was to answer any questions that I might not feel comfortable asking the bosses, and fill me in about living in the area.

"There’s one thing you need to know," one of the reporters said, and did so in a tone that made me think bad news was to follow.

"NASCAR is big here. Like, really big," he said, as the other shook his head in sorrow.


But the bright side is that there are nine minor league teams in the state, and I had a free evening ahead of me once the interviews were over.

The Greensboro Bats were on the road, but the guys told me that just an hour east was Durham, home of the Durham Bulls of "Bull Durham" fame.

Josh Pahigian names The Durham Athletic Park, where the movie was filmed, as spot No. 15 in the 101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out.

The tiny park still stands, but the team moved in to a larger stadium downtown in 1995. I didn’t feel comforable enough in the city to find both places, so:

Alternative Place No. 15A: Durham Bulls Athletic Park

The names are similar, but the parks are as different as cane be. The DAP was built in 1939 and sat 5,000, but that must be filling all the grassy areas, because the stands seem pretty small to me.

But the DBAP is a modern facility seating 10,000 for the now Triple-A Bulls. The brick park in intended to blend in with the surrounding American Tobacco Historic District, and a smoke stack with "Lucky Strike" written in white bricks rises beyond the third base stands.

Left field has a 35-foot wall dubbed "the Blue Monster" and atop it sits a larger recreation of the snorting "Hit the Bull, Win a Steak" sign from the movie.

The original is on display on the concourse.

I learned some cool things. The snorting bull was created for the movie — the DAP never had such a thing until then. And like most movie props, it wasn’t built to last.

Given the success of the "Bull Durham," I expected to see a lot of other movie-related items around the park.

Maybe a "Hit the Mascot" ball-tossing area or a "Paint Your Face Like a Mayan Lava Lizard" booth. But there was nothing.

I figured the team shop must have all kinds of things, even Bull Durham candlesticks to give as wedding presents.

But again, there was nothing. The team shop was pretty big, but nothing connected to the film was available.

Reporters are curious, so started asking questions.

"We really don’t do a lot with the movie," a clerk to told me. "It’s rated R. It’s not a family film. We think of ourselves of family entertainment."

Makes sense, and I enjoyed taking a seat in the stands. The Bulls were the Rays’ top farm club, and the Rochester Red Wings were affiliated with the Orioles. Durham won 11-5.

Randy Winn and Jose Guillen both homered for the Bulls, and Ed Galliard pitched. B.J. Ryan made what might have been his first appearance in the Orioles organization, having come over in a trade from the Reds two days prior.

I was a little disappointed I didn’t get over to the DAP, which still stands, and, according to reports, could soon be renovated for use as a training facility, college games and as a tourist site.

Greesnboro was a beautiful place and the people couldn’t have been nicer. I was offered the job, but had another offer that was better for the family. But I’m reminded of that lunch every time I pass the newsroom’s Coke vending machine — and it’s giant picture of late NASCAR diver Dale Earnhardt.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Baseball place No. 14: Doubleday Field

I choose to live in a very happy little world where George Washington never did tell any lies, where Kiss Alive was really recorded live and where no Mets player has ever taken steroids.

And I also believe that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in 1839 in Elihu Phinney’s cow pasture in beautiful Cooperstown, N.Y.

Deep down I know that the first George W. was a politician like the second, and Gene Simmons has confessed in recent years that there were in fact some studio touch-ups on the classic live album.

But no Met has ever taken steroids -- Guillermo Mota was just confused when he confessed in 2006, thinking he was on the other New York team.

But I absolutely, positively cannot accept that baseball was invented in Hoboken, N.J., as Congress resolved in 1953.

That’s because Cooperstown and Doubleday Field are just too perfect. We’re not going to let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Josh Pahigian names Doubleday Field Place No. 14 in the 101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out.

The brick ballpark sits just a block away from the Hall of Fame, and, personally, I would have included them as one entry. But it’s not my book.

The cow pasture was christened Doubleday Field in 1920, with a wooden grandstand erected in 1924 and the present brick and concrete structure built in the 1930s as Works Progress Administration projects.

Major League teams played an annual exhibition on the field starting in 1940. The final game was supposed to be last season, but the Cubs and Padres were rained out. That would make the Orioles and Blue Jays to be the final big-leaguers to play on this slice of heaven, with the Orioles winning the 2007 contest.

The Mets have played in four Hall of Fame games, losing to the Senators in 1964 and the Brewers in 1975. They played to a 4-4 rain-shortened tie against the White Sox in 1982, and beat them 3-0 in 1992. Note, two Tom Seaver teams playing in the year he was inducted!

There are reports of an illegal Wiffle Ball game on or about the field late one afternoon in 1992.

Friend and colleague John Munson, wearing a jersey of his hero, Thurman, and a guy in a 1969 flannel Tom Seaver replica allegedly played catch and hit some balls where the Phinney cows once walked – and where Abner Doubleday most likely did not.
This appears to be photographic evidence if intent to play Wiffle Ball. Note the sign advertising the game between the Mets and White Sox.

We had to play on that picturesque spot in that lovely little ballpark. Because we sure as heck are not going to play in Hoboken.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Baseball Place No. 13: Lawrence-Dumont Stadium

The National Baseball Congress World Series features a 56-hour marathon of 17 straight games, drawing diehards to historic Lawrence-Dumont Stadium in Wichita, Kan.

My time there was far shorter.

Josh Pahigian picked the stadium and the NBC Hall of Fame as spot No. 13 in “101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out.”

I was attending an education writers conference in Denver when Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. Two days later my Flint Journal editors learned that Terry Nichols, who once lived in the area and still had family three, was involved.

I was told to check out, catch a flight to Kansas, learn more about this man and follow his first court appearances.

Those adventures are among the wildest of my career -- they're here -- and of course we worked a little baseball into the picture.

I had a little bit of time to run to Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. The Wichita Wranglers were on the road, but folks were kind enough to open a gift shop for me and allow for some photo-taking.

I was surprised to see an artificial turf infield, but supposedly that’s to withstand the pounding from the two-week tournament.

I caught a flight out of Kansas City after the court proceedings were over, and had a little bit of two more stops, the Harry S Truman Museum and then Kauffman Stadium, where the Royals team bus was pulling away for a road trip – and kind staffers once again opened a gift store and allowed me to wander around and snap photos.


OK, if you read the comments, M Mayes pointed out something I didn't see. The scoreboard at Lawrence-Dumont has a goose that clucks along and drops a "goose egg" on the line score when the visiting team doesn't score a run.

If you treasure the 1972 Topps baseball set as I do, you'll like his blog, which is here.

I found this photo of the goose in action on an amazing site called The Lope that features Ace, a well-dressed jackalope, who apparently travels all over the place and gets people to pose with him, even members of the band Yes. It's worth checking out!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

I wanted something to touch

Farewell to my personal Baseball Place No. 1

I guess I'm glad that the Shea Stadium slipped completely into our memories this afternoon. I've looked at the demolition photos with sadness, even knowing that Citi Field will be a neat place -- with a cool Fan Walk, espcially one small part of it.

As I work through Josh's book, I see he takes us to remnants of former ballparks, usually just a wall.

But with the fall today of the last standing portion of Shea Stadium, I was reminded that nothing was left for future generations. Painted foul lines in the parking lot won't cut it. I was hoping that something touchable would have been left on its original site.