Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Freddy's gone -- and without his jersey

Well, it looks like I'm going to be wearing my Freddy Garcia Mets jersey for longer than Freddy will.

The Mets cut Garcia loose after two bad starts at Triple-A Bufflao and an Ollie-like 8.18 REA.

You'll recall that Dad won this sweet signed Garcia jersey at the spring home opener this year. Since it was the first game, and the team wore its blue batting practice jerseys during workouts, it stands to reason that Freddy wore the jersey for the team's photo session -- and that's it!

Freddy's a big guy. It's a size 54 with an extra inch on the sleeves and two inches on the torso. But I still looked pretty spiff wearing it to my church fantasy draft.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Baseball Place No. 50: Sports Legends Museum; and Place No. 50A: Oriole Park at Camden Yards

There was much more work to do on Camden Yards when we arrived for our tour in 1992, but we could already tell something special was happening there.

And that's before there were plans for the Sports Legends Museum in Camden Station.

Josh Pahigian takes us the for spot No. 50 in his "101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out."

The station sat empty from 1971 until renovated in 2005. We saw some of the artifacts when they were displayed at the Babe Ruth Museum, which is just a couple blocks away.

The stationis even closer, sitting perpendicular to the stadium's famous warehouseand just steps from the outfield.

Since the museum wasn't open in 1991, I must present an alternative.

Alternative place No. 50A: Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Like I said in the earlier post, the Orioles could not have been more gracious to us when we arrived for the Baltimore leg of our epic baseball rpad trip.

A staff member was assigned to give us a tour of the under-construction ballpark. We got to wear hard hats and everything.

The ballpark had not yet been properly named, even though it was popularly called "Camden Yards."
The spot for home plate was already designated.

The view of downtown was a very different from what fans saw from the upper deck at Memorial Stadium.

John got some great shots from the upper deck.

Check out the neat details on the seats.

The concourses were wide and open.

Camden Yards looked like it was going to be a spectacular ballpark, and I've love to get there again to see how it turned out.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Baseball place No. 49: Yogi Berra Museum; and No. 49A: Minute Maid Park

Yogi Berra’s complicated.

He had all those years as a Yankee, even managing them to the World Series. Then, as if he suddenly realized just how tragic that was, Yogi sought redemption by signing with the Mets for a couple games.

Eventually, of course, Yogi managed the Mets to the “You Gotta Believe” pennant of 1973.

Sadly, proving that you can get sucked back in to the dark side, Yogi ended up in the Bronx again.

Apparently he also ended up in New Jersey, where he is the subject of the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center.

Josh Pahigian takes us there as place No. 49 in the “101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out.”

I try to limit my exposure to Yankeedom and New Jersey, so I’ve never been there.

But it’s a little known fact that Yogi spent time with another team, including one that staged an epic battle against our Mets. That would be the Houston Astros.

Yes, Yogi wore the rainbow-sleeved uniforms as an Astros bench coach in 1986.

That leads me to:

Alternative place No. 49A: Minute Maid Park

Here’s another adventure from the archives.

I usually don't mind a layover of an hour or two while traveling. But I confess that I was dragging on my way home from an education writers' conference in Houston in December 2004.

The conference itself was very helpful, our hosts at the Houston Chronicle were awesome and the city itself was nicer than I imagined.

But I usually try to work a baseball adventure into each of my work-related journeys, and this time I fell pretty short.

Minute Maid Park is downtown, but was a pretty good walk from where we were meeting, at least too long for a patented "got lost coming back from the rest rooms" side trips.

I made it to the yard 15 minutes before the gift shop closed. The clerk let me in, but wasn't particularly excited about it. I was able to snag an American League All-Star Game jersey on a clearance rack, but couldn't give the place the usual once-over that I like. And the shop was closed the rest of the weekend.

The store entrance is off a nice-looking lobby of what I believe was Houston's old train station, but I couldn't get any photos of the field or inside the stadium.

Keith feared that if Jesse threw another fastball, this pennant would say "NL Champs" instead.

There were some interesting things outside, like statues of Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, but it was getting dark and my photos were disappointing. And the Biggio statue was actually kind of scary.

Bagwell, above, and the "Biggio as zombie searching for brains" statues.

It seemed odd since you usually don’t see statues of active players.

The park looked like a nice place to see a game, though. And I could see the home run train – decorated for Christmas – through the window.

Houston had another neat statue. There was a new park dedicated to President George H.W. Bush. Baseball + presidents = successful road trip.

And while I like cruising through airports, the trip home isn't as exciting as the first time through, especially in Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport.

I'd already ridden the underground train and explored all the gift shops and food courts. The only baseball items were related to the Braves, and you know I want no part of such things.

So I was aimlessly wandering one of the terminals, and I saw one of the gates decorated with tons of red, white and blue balloons. I assumed there must have been some soldiers returning from Iraq, and thought it would be a nice pick-me-up to see our heroes getting off a plane and into the arms of their families.

But within a minute or two, there was an announcement over the public address system: "Delta Airlines, the official airline of the 2004 World Champion Boston Red Sox, is proud to announce the arrival of a very special passenger, the 2004 World Series trophy."

What? You gotta be kidding me! The actual World Series trophy?

And sure enough, after all the passengers deplaned, the pilot and co-pilot walked into the gate area holding the trophy high. They placed it on a table surrounded by balloons, and people were allowed to pose for photos.

It was actually the first time I saw a legitimate use for those dopey cell phone cameras. Luckily, I had my own camera handy, and a Delta employee offered to snap the photo.

Officially known as the Commissioner's Trophy, it was first presented to the World Series winner in 1967, when the Cardinals beat the Red Sox in 7 games. The trophy features flags with each of the 30 teams on it and the World Series champion gets to keep it because a new one is made each year.

I've always thought the World Series trophy was cool because it is very different from the lame Super Bowl and NBA championship awards. You know exactly what it is at first glance.

I must say it was quite a thrill. I got to touch it and everything, and looked for the little pennant with the Mets name on it.

The Mets 1969 trophy is unique -- it's the only one to have the Seattle Pilots on it.

Naturally I had a lot of questions, namely why in the heck was the World Series trophy making an appearance in the Atlanta airport? I had heard that the Sox were sending it on a tour of New England and even their spring training home in Fort Myers.

But the Atlanta airport? Did the trophy ride in coach or first class? Did they try to charge it $5 for a “snack pack” that included 50 cents worth of pretzels, peanuts and Combos? Did some jerk in the seat in front of it drop his seat back down moments as soon as he could? And did the flight attendant roll her eyes when it asked for a full can of Diet Coke instead of a small, ice-filled plastic cup?

Not that such things have happened to me.

And what the heck was Yogi doing serving as the Astros bench coach?

Not that these nagging details stopped me from having fun. Talk about good timing! And it just goes to show that you never know when a good baseball adventure can happen.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Baseball Place No. 48: Ripken Center; Alternative Place No. 48A: Memorial Stadium

My brother played catch with Cal Ripken Sr. Really.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Josh Pahigian takes us to the Ripken Center in Aberdeen, Md. as spot No. 48 in his “101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out.”

It sounds like a pretty glorious place. The legendary baseball family has a compound hosting a minor-league team, four scaled-down replicas of major-league parks, camps, clinics and a museum.

Never been there, but I did spend a wonderful evening at a park with the Ripkens.

Alternative place No. 48A) Memorial Stadium
Baltimore was a stop on our epic 1991 ballpark tour for a Journal story about stadiums. We toured an under-construction Camden Yards and arrived at Memorial Stadium for a July 23 game against the California Angels.
Will, John and my brother John toured Camden Yards then enjoyed a game at Memorial.

Memorial Stadium, where the Mets played their first two World Series games, was in its final year.

The Orioles were incredibly accommodating, granting credentials to all four members of our party.

Naturally, we enjoyed this to the fullest, getting down to the field for batting practice. And as we know, I take photos of everything moving and not moving.

Memorial Stadium was in its final season.

Dwight Evans

Wally Joyner and Lance Parrish

Wally Joyner in the cage.

So does my brother, who actually looked like a photojournalist in his khaki vest.

Cal Sr. was hitting fungos, with players tossing the balls back to him so he could again toss them up and smack another fly.

As John was shooting, he felt something bounce off his foot. A throw had gotten away from Cal Sr. and rolled to John.

“Son, can you throw that over here?” Cal Sr. said, ever the gentleman.

John picked it up and tossed it back. Eighteen years later I remain insanely jealous.

Cal Jr.

After shooting everyone and everything we moved up to the press box area for some snacks. The dining room was pretty small and very crowded. A staff member was standing behind a counter.

“Are those crab cakes?” Of course they were. We were in Baltimore. They seemed like the frozen variety, but I did not complain.

Memorial Stadium was such a realxed place that event the grounds crew was having fun and playing catch.

I moved into the press box for the game, which was great because Jim Abbott, a Flint native, was on the hill for the Angels. Seeing Abbott effortlessly transfer his glove from his hand to the end of his arm was simply amazing.

Press boxes aren’t always fun places. Basically there are a lot of openly surly people up there. I got a sense that the athletes don’t treat a lot of these guys all that well, and when you spend all that time in such an environment you tend to pass it on to whomever you come in contact with.

You need to know that there are semi-assigned seats. Some of the little desks bear the name of the news outlet, and others are just kind of claimed because the same people sit in them every game. Visiting media usually sit in the last couple rows.

So I had my seat in the last row and was enjoying my crab cakes -- seemed like the frozen kind, but they were free -- and about two innings into the game the staff ushered in a dad and his elementary school-aged son.

I think there were contest winners or something, and both were dressed in Orioles gear. The staffer scanned the box, saw a couple open seats in the first row and placed them there. Both seemed thrilled.

It wasn’t too much later when a late-arriving writer -- I didn’t catch who it was or who he worked for -- saw these two in his seat and went nuts. I don’t mean some grumbling, this guy was yelling.

The Orioles media relations guy told him to calm down and pointed him to a spot in the last row, next to me. The guy walked up and slammed -- and I mean slammed! -- his stuff down on the desk."Do you believe this?" he said, as if I would share in his outrage. Since he was all worked up and all, I was going to ask him if I could eat his crab cakes, but I thought better of it.

The Orioles media folks are first-rate, and handed me all kinds of information about the under-construction stadium.

But after a while I picked up my folders and headed out to explore the rest of the stadium and catch up with Will, John Munson and my bother. We settled down in the upper deck behind home plate. It seemed odd that the seats were metal bleachers.

Abbott pitched brilliantly, throwing seven shutout innings, striking out seven with five hits – one of them to Cal Jr. – and just one walk while his teammates scored five.

The Angels pen darn near wasted his effort, giving up a grand slam to Randy “Moose” Milligan, who started his career with three games with the 1987 Mets, before traded to the Pirates for Mackey Sasser.

It was a beautiful park on a beautiful night, looking out into the residential neighborhood beyond the field.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A glorious piece of Opening Day arrives by surprise

My cousins spoil me wildly.

Watching Citi Field's first game on ESPN last week, I was thinking how cool it would be to have a program from the historic games.

And having been to some other historic games, like the last game at Tiger Stadium, I've seen the mad scramble from speculators to get such programs. It was pretty ugly.

Several days after the game, my wife called and and said a package arrived from my cousin Mike. I knew Mike was lucky enough to get to the game with is son Conor.

There was much joy when I opened the package and found:

Thank you, Mike and Conor!!!

Yankee fans: Don't mess with my team, it's home or my cap

I avoid conversing with Yankee fans whenever possible. It just doesn’t end well.

We went the mall after church today so my daughter could use her Justice gift card. I maintain that no male has lasted more than five minutes in Justice, which attracts tween girls the way chicken wings attract adult guys.

So I let the ladies rush ahead and slipped into Lids across the hall to see some of the new baseball caps.

I noticed two employees, as I scanned some of the unstructured caps looking for any thing with the Mets on it, which they have on occasion.

“Anything you’re looking for?” the guy worker asked.

“Just looking. Do you have anything for the Mets?”

“Mets?” the female employee said, practically sneering. “I’m a Yankee fan. We can fight now.”

I looked up, and sure enough there was a woman wearing a cheesy unstructured Yankees cap, the kind that looks intentionally “distressed.”

Now, I’d rather look at the Lip Smackers and Web Kinz at Justice than fight with a Yankee fan because it’s not like you’re going to change their minds.

Anyway, I went back to looking at the caps, and there were a couple Mets ones there.

“The Yankees opened their great new stadium last week,” she said. “Maybe the Mets can get one someday.”

OK, I bit. I don’t know why. Maybe I feared the Jonas Brothers t-shirts more than the conversation. But I’m not going to allow these people to start belittling Citi Field with my sweet brick right there on the FanWalk.

“They have a new one, it’s beautiful. And they don’t get beat 22-4 there.”

“Ooooh man, that hurt!” the male employee said with a grimace. I don’t think he was a Yankee fan, and probably suffers greatly by being exposed to co-workers who think Derek F. Jeter has range or that Robinson Cano is a good player

It was a one-punch knockout.

The humbled Yankee fan walked over and showed me the new Mets caps, and said she could special order caps with the Citi Field patch. She special-ordered a Yankee Stadium cap for her husband.

We discussed the merits of putting the patch on the side, like the Mets did, and on the back, like the Yankees did. Naturally I think the Yankee cap looks ridiculous from any direction, but kept that to myself.

I slipped over to Justice, ready to face the “girls rock” t-shirts and flip-flops, my team and its home properly defended.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Baseball Place No. 47: Cardinals Hall of Fame and Museum

Now that the Mets have won a game at their beautiful new home, we can head back on the road with Josh.

And once again, we find ourselves in the same place, and that would be the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame Museum.

Technically we’re setting aside spot No. 46 in the “101 Baseball Places to See before You Strike Out” because I have to take some photos of an historic place here in Grand Rapids.

So we’ll go right to No. 47, which sadly, is closed for now.

The Cardinals had a wonderful Hall of Fame in the lower levels of the old Busch Stadium. It later moved it across the street into the National Bowling Hall of Fame.

I suspect this was because the bowling hall lacked visitors. In fact, the bowling hall packed up and headed to Texas in November. A new Cards museum is expected to be a part of a new development across from the new stadium, should the retail-office-residential complex get built.

But all was good back in 1993 when my wife and I caught up with Tony for a day of adventure.

We learned a lot, too. For instance, it used to get so hot on the Busch Stadium artificial turf that players would run off the field after each inning and jump — spikes and all — into tubs of ice water kept in the dugout.

I got this from a pretty good source: former Cardinals outfielder and future Met Bernard Gilkey.

My editors at The Flint Journal knew of my love for all things St. Louis and sent me to write a travel story about the city. Armed with an expense account, we enjoyed all St. Louis had to offer, all in the name of research, of course.

Naturally, a game at Busch Stadium was on our list of things to see, and the Rockies, in their inaugural year, were in town.

Even more exciting, we found out that the Cardinals offered stadium tours.
Check out all the dents in the dugout wall from foul balls.

This was too good to pass up. We were not allowed in the clubhouse – there was a game that night, after all -- but we got some behind-the-scenes peeks of the press box and other areas.

Tony, a would-be base-stealer.

The highlight, by far, was going out on the field and hanging out in the dugout. The artificial turf was indeed like fuzzy concrete with very little bounce. That didn’t stop us from doing sweet Ozzie Smith flips.

Well, more like Tony holding my feet while I did something resembling a handstand for a photo. But properly cropped, me and Ozzie are one and the same!

After exploring the field, the tour took us into the Cardinals museum. The Cards have a pretty rich history, and it was all displayed well.

There was much to see, with jerseys, equipment, championship pennants, stadium models and other artifacts. The Cards have a pretty impressive history, and they present it without the in-you-face-bow-before-the- Yankee-gods another team adopts.

Much to our glee, we found that on some Saturday afternoons, a Cardinals player is in the museum to meet fans.

And there, as if he was one of the exhibits, was Bernard Gilkey.

There wasn’t a big crowd that day, so we had plenty of time to chat.This was a surprise, so I wasn’t prepared with a ball for Bernard to sign. I offered the bill of my Cards home cap as he gave us the inside scoop about the turf, and that the temperature on the field sometimes reached 110 degrees, hence the ice water.

We also popped into the bowling museum, which brought back flashbacks of my high school years when I was the show and score sheet kid at 300 Bowl in Massapequa Park.

It was clear that the people running the place took bowling very seriously. We did not, but had fun playing on the old fashioned lanes in the lower level.

I was in St. Louis again in October, and saw the signs that the museum was closing and popped in to squish some pennies for my daughter and grab some very discounted souvenirs.

I didn’t have time to walk through the Cardinals museum one more time, but I expect to take another tour when the new version opens. Maybe Bernard Gilkey will be there again.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Saying hello to Citi Field by holding on to a piece of Shea Stadium

My slice of heaven arrived.

With my in-laws serving as prime enablers and spoiling me wildly, my family decided I should bid on a piece of Shea Stadium as a birthday present. It was fitting since the stadium made its debut about two weeks after I did in 1964.

The team’s Web site has been trickling out directional and informational signs, photos, ads, banners, flags and other items from our favorite ballpark for an online auction.

And there are bricks, napkin dispensers, dugout bench slices and even visitor lockers in a “buy it now” section where you can obtain artifacts without having to compete.

I have some ballpark remains in the baseball room, with seats from Milwaukee and Cleveland, a brick from Milwaukee and small section of Riverfront Stadium turf. Also some infield dirt from Wrigley, Milwaukee and what was then Joe Robbie Stadium, and some of Tiger Stadium pitcher's mound.

All are wonderful, but none of them came from Shea.

So I scanned the list of items available to select a target. None of them are bad, obviously. And I was able to eliminate about 90 percent of the items because they were already crazy expensive.

I also decided I wanted something that was attached to the actual stadium. So the parking space nametags for Mets executives and the vinyl signs that hung from the light poles were eliminated.

I also thought the Diamond Club check presenters also didn’t cut it, since there will likely be items just like it in Citi Field, and I wanted something more stadium-related.

Then I decided I wanted something that was permanent, something that was a part of the stadium from its first game to its last.

That narrowed the list to three items: a brick, a brick that was a part of the outfield wall, and metal elbows from the railings in the stands.

Bricks are very cool. And paired with my Citi Field Fanwalk brick from Cousin Tim, it would have been a neat display.

But I focused on the metal elbows. I’ve seen people with bricks, but I’ve never seen railing sections like this before on display.

The pipe is about an inch-and-a-half across, and the section is just shy of a foot. There’s a company name tag for the firm that held the box seats -- thought the first one I bid on was blank – and a metal number riveted to the top.

MeiGray Group, the auctioneer, tries to attach players to the box numbers, which is kind of silly since it’s not like Mike Piazza has any connection to this elbow because it was No. 31.

I felt kind of a personal connection to the railings. They’re a part of the stadium I was very familiar with, having leaned on them and banged on them all those years.

They’re a part of Shea I recall vividly from my childhood. And unlike the concession stand signs or even the gate markers, these elbows where there when Jack Fisher threw the first pitch, when Cleon Jones caught the fly that ended the 1969 Series, and when Buddy and Pete went at it.

They were on the job when all we had to cheer for were Pat Zachary and Doug Flynn, when Tom Seaver came home in triumph in 1983 and throughout the domination of 1986.

They held firm and strong through homers including Mike Scioscia’s sucker punch, Robin Ventura’s grand slam single, Mike Piazza’s grief release in 2001 and when Yadier Molina earned “Bleeping” as a middle name.

They were there for my first game – Banner Day with my family in 1971 – and the final game last year with Dad and Tim.

The railings were at Shea for the first game through the last.

With the brick as a back-up, I bid on an orange elbow with a blank sign, got out-bid in the final hours, and found another, bid late and crossed my fingers.

“The rubble,” as my family calls it, It arrived over the weekend and was waiting on our porch when we arrived home.

Apparently workers or clients from D.F. King & Co. Inc. sat there for years, judging from the condition of the nameplate. The company’s Web site says it is a “leading full-service proxy solicitation and corporate/financial communications firm, specializing in proxy contests and tender/exchange offers for corporate control.”

Not exactly sure what that is, but I hope they enjoyed their seats as much as I’m enjoying the railing that enclosed them.

As all this planning and plotting was transpiring, My Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Jim surprised me with a medallion that has some glorious dirt from Shea’s infield. What a treasure!

So now I have Shea’s field and stands represented in the baseball room. Actually on the fireplace mantle in the living room, but I’m not sure how long my wife is going to allow that.

But with something to hold and keep, I can reluctantly let go of Shea today as the Mets play their first game in their new ballpark.

It’s a blank slate, with only one layer of still-drying paint on its railing, ready to be the setting for new memories, all starting tonight.