Game 12: AT&T Park, San Francisco

Something I’ve learned in this life of traveling, ballpark touring, scorekeeping and next-day blog posting: it’s hard work. Harder than I anticipated. Especially when trying to balance it with full time youth ministry and seminary work.

So forgive me for the delay on this post. I’ve been itching to get to it because AT&T Park was such a terrific host.

I spent last weekend in Los Angeles, Seattle and Oakland. San Francisco was my last stop on the West Coast Tour, and it did not disappoint.

Five hours before game time, I was on the field.

My publisher, The House Studio, arranged for me to meet up with Jeremy Affeldt, Giants relief pitcher and all around stud, at the ballpark that afternoon. Jeremy is a two-time World Series champ in 2010 and 2012, and was Setup Man of the Year in 2009. He also wrote a book called “To Stir a Movement: Life, Justice and Major League Baseball” last year. Told you. Stud.

We talked about his journey as a Christian in the MLB – struggles, failures, calling, morality, mission – and it was so awesome to hear him share his experience of God as a professional ballplayer.

I’ll mention part of our convo in this post, but you can read the whole interview with him here.

While I was hanging with Jeremy in the seats behind the Giants dugout, I couldn’t help but glance around as other players arrived at the ballpark.

Tim Lincecum, the Giants starter Monday night, came walking in sporting a yellow and purple Washington Huskies cap, which paired up nicely with his gorgeous mustache. Buster Posey had the night off, so he was out on the outfield grass playing with his little son. Sergio Romo rode in on a custom scooter.

I was borderline freaking out, but I tried to keep calm in front of Jeremy. It was just another day at the office for these guys. Yeah, killer office, man.

Affeldt told me the view from the seats we were sitting in was the most Instagrammed photo of 2013: the Coke bottle and glove beyond the left field wall. I told him that photo has been my Facebook banner photo for the past two years. I was trying to brag because I put it up in 2011 before it was cool. I think I ended up just sounding lame.

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It is beautiful though. AT&T Park is situated just south of the Bay Bridge on the west side of the San Francisco Bay on “McCovey Cove” after the former Giants slugger – although, I suspect that it wasn’t called that before the ballpark was built in 2002. The seats in right field are only three rows deep, so occasionally a ball will leave the park entirely and land with a splash in the Cove.

There have been 65* splash homers since 2002. Thirty-five were hit by Barry Bonds. Which means there have been 30 splashes over 12+ seasons. Which means, ignoring Bonds, it happens about 2-3 times a year. So it’s relatively rare. Nevertheless, you can always count on a handful of kayakers parked in the Cove hoping for a souvenir.

* – As of Monday night. Brandon Crawford hit one two days later to make it 66 splashes.

Our seats were in the front row of The Arcade, which is what they call the 3 rows in right field – hoping to see a splash on Monday night.

Second inning, two outs, in his first ever MLB at bat as a starter, Tyler Colvin unloaded on a 1-1 pitch. It sailed over our heads – over The Arcade -and splashed in the Cove. Colvin had a game: 2-3 with a triple and a homer.

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I watched the replay and took a screen shot of the home run. Hard to see, but there’s where I was sitting.

We actually got to see another splash homer. Braves’ first baseman, Freddie Freeman, poked one out in the 9th, but we weren’t cheering for the Braves, so…

What an incredible experience for Colvin. He’s probably been working to get into the big leagues for a long time, and to have a game – a moment, really – like that in his first MLB start? Amazing.

Jeremy and I were talking before the game about the pressure rookies feel they first come into the league. They’re still seeking permanent work and the financial security it provides. They want to feel like they’ve made it, and often times they – like Affeldt – don’t experience immediate success when they break into the league at a young age.

Now, I don’t know anything about Colvin’s spiritual life, and I’m certainly not claiming this to be true of him at all. I don’t know if he believes in God and feels a calling on his life like Jeremy and I do. But I wonder what happens to a rookie when they experience immediate success. Do they continue to need God? Or do they begin to rely on their own strength instead?

Jeremy had a great quote about this that I didn’t include in yesterday’s interview post: “They don’t need God, and they’ll tell you that. ‘I’ve got money, I’ve got cars, I’ve got women, I’ve got fame – why do I need God?'” Because of his early struggles in the game, Jeremy has a profound perspective on failure as an athlete.

Success doesn’t cause us to grow. Only failure can do that.

And baseball is a game of failures. “It’s who fails the least that does well in this game,” Affeldt told me, “you have to learn to fail…You base your days, or your trust in God, on your wins and losses – your successes or not.”

I admire Jeremy for his pursuit of God in the midst of his struggles as a professional athlete. It is his frustration, struggle, pain and perplexity that have taught him to find his strength in God and not himself.

That’s what was running through my head when Colvin put the Giants on the board in the 2nd. Where do we find our strength – in ourselves, or in the one we created us in his image? Do our actions reflect that understanding? Is it about us, or is it about our Creator?

It’s a question not just for athletes, but for all of us to consider. When I finish this book, and it’s selling millions of copies and is a NY Times Best Seller*, who gets the glory for that success? Is it about me, the creator of this book, or is it about the ultimate Creator – the one who made me, gifted me, and has already written my story within his Story?

Or when this book flops, and the only people reading it are friends and family who are simply humoring me, reading it out of obligation because of their relationship with me, will I look to God to teach me why I’m not experiencing success for all my hard work? Will I allow the Spirit to grow me, give me strength and persevere in my calling as a follower of Christ?

What is it for you? Can you relate? What has been your experience of failure or success? Where does your strength come from?

I lift my eyes to the hills –
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.

Psalm 121:1-2

San Francisco is a good place to talk about hills too. It’s been four days since I left the Bay and my calves are still sore from walking around that city.

Game Notes:

Earlier in the day, I was in a cab headed to Pier 39. My driver and I were chatting about the Giants and their season so far. I told him I was excited to see Tim Lincecum pitch that night, but the driver wasn’t so enthusiastic.

“I don’t know what his deal is. He’s not the same guy he was a few years ago.”

I agreed, but tried to keep it positive. “Totally, but you never know. He could turn it around.”

“I hope so. The Freak is still in there,” he responded, “It seems like any day he could be back to his Cy Young ways.”

It turns out Monday was that day.

Because Timmy and his mustache were awesome.

He was absolutely dominant. He went 7.2 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 11 K. His breaking ball is a slider-curve combo (slurve) that he can control all around the strike zone. It was unhittable on Monday night.

BJ Upton, by some miracle, had 2 hits – a solo homer and a double – but the rest of the Braves lineup was totally miffed by Timmy the Freak.

When I left for the coast, I thought I was going to get to see Aaron Harang pitch for the Braves. Instead, I saw Gavin Floyd, who did his best Harang impression holding the Giants to 1 run through 6 innings – Colvin’s splash being the only mar to his line.

But in the 7th, the Giants put on 4 straight batters.

Hector Sanchez led off with a single. Brandon Crawford reached on a grounder to first that Freddie Freeman couldn’t corral. Colvin ripped a triple scoring both base runners, and then he scored himself on a Brandon Hicks single. Floyd got to pitch to Lincecum, whom he struck out, before getting hooked, and the Atlanta bullpen shut down the Giants’ bats from there.

But the damage was done. 4-1 Giants headed into the 9th.

Giants manager Bruce Bochy had Affeldt warming up for a long time, and closer Sergio Romo was ready too, but he decided to go with Javier Lopez to start the 9th instead to pitch to the lefty Freeman before bringing in Romo to get righties Chris Johnson* and Gerald Laird.

* – Also, how many people do you know named Chris Johnson? I know at least 5.

Lopez promptly gave up a splash HR to Freeman and left the game after 1 batter with a binary line: 0.0 1 1 1 0 0.

But Romo closed it: 4-3, 4-3, and struck out BJ Upton looking to end it.

The Bay Area really treated me right. Oakland and San Francisco have been the two best games I’ve seen so far, and they stopped my home team losing streak at 6. The home team is now 5-7 on my ballpark tour.

Twelve down. Eighteen to go.

Up next: Colorado Rockies.

-apc.

Game 4: Turner Field, Atlanta

Welcome to Braves Country.

The first stop on The Smorgasbord Tour: Atlanta. I’ve been to ATL twice in the past for youth ministry conferences, but I had never been to a Braves game before. I went to a Hawks game once – I was one of about 57 people there – but Turner Field was going to be a new experience for me.

I flew in on Saturday night, hopped on the MARTA and met up with my new friend, Wally, on the north side of the city. Wally is the father of one of my seminary friends, and as I was raising support for this project, she sent him the information and he quickly contacted me asking if I had a place to stay while I was in Atlanta. I’m thankful to have gotten to spend the weekend with him.

Spending time in Wally’s condo was like walking through a museum. He is extremely interested in his family heritage and owns countless antique items that each have a special story and memory behind them.

He showed me his Cardinals scorecard from a game he went to at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis when he was a kid. It is framed next to a photo of he and his siblings at the game. When his grandmother died, he asked if he could have her old antique bed. He has a framed receipt listing all the things his grandparents bought at the store on their wedding day. Wally restores old photographs and has an image of his grandfather’s one-room schoolhouse class from the early 1900s. Everywhere I looked I found another antique, and every antique had a family story.

This past December, Wally’s wife, Lynda, passed away due to non-smokers lung cancer. Understandably, it’s been a difficult few months for him. He has spent some time away from work traveling to visit his daughter in Kansas City, his brother in St. Louis and some friends in Tennessee. He’s been back home for about a week now, and everywhere he looks he’s reminded of the past 40 years of life with his wife.

Wally is exploring who he is and what he is going to be about now that Lynda is gone. “My life is like a whiteboard now,” he said this weekend, “and the great thing about whiteboards is that you can erase them and start over whenever you want to.”

He’s exploring his identity, asking questions about himself and his life he hasn’t asked for years. He’s trying new things and new experiences, which is the reason he was so excited to put me up for the past two nights and join me for the Braves game yesterday afternoon.

But before the game, we were headed to All Saints Episcopal Church for worship.

Palm Sunday in an Episcopal Church was a very unique worship experience. Lots of Scripture readings. Lots of call and response. A beautiful choir with a processional and recessional that bookended the service. Everything was ordered and deliberate. They even incorporated intentional segments of silence into the liturgy, which is an option I think lots of churches might benefit from exploring.

I think this is a major part of why baseball can seems so spiritual. There is an order of events in place: batting practice, announcing the starting lineups, the ceremonial “first pitch”, the National Anthem, yelling, “Play Ball!”, the 7th inning stretch, Take Me Out to the Ballgame, and sometimes the singing of God Bless America. Baseball is liturgical.

And unlike other sports, there are 17 different breaks in the action for us to process what’s been happening in what we’ve witnessed so far. Time to process the game so far. Time to swap stories and take in the setting. It’s a form of silence that is embedded into the game.

Silence and liturgy are both deeply incorporated into the game of baseball.

Okay moving on to the game.

The Braves are the oldest MLB franchise. They were first the Boston Braves in 1871, then they were the Milwaukee Braves, then in 1966 they became the Atlanta Braves.

The Braves played in old Fulton Country Stadium until the 1996 when the olympics came to Atlanta. They built Turner Field to house the summer events, then converted it to the “Home of the Braves”.

It was a beautiful afternoon for a ballgame – 81 degrees and sunny. My arms managed to get sunburned. I have a calculator watch tan line.

Every Braves employee I met, whether an usher, vendor, or parking lot attendant, had the same thing to say: “Welcome to Braves Country!”

One of my favorite things about ballparks is seeing all the creative ways the club has memorialized it’s past. Since I’d just left Wally’s house a few hours earlier, I was even more attuned to noticing the subtle ways the Braves honored their past.

The parking lot, for example, is where Fulton County Stadium used to sit. They outside wall of the parking lot is the old outfield wall! Such a brilliant move. High five to whoever had that idea.

There are retired numbers and statues of former players all around outside the park. Murphy. Jones. Neikro. Spahn. Aaron.

All around the outfield concourse, they have little signs posted that say “723 feet from home plate” and “581 feet from home plate”. Which is a brilliantly subtle thing that only baseball fans would probably appreciate. The 581 sign was especially cool considering Josh Gibson once hit a ball that far at Yankee Stadium.

But there are two numbers that Braves fans celebrate more than any other: 715 and 14.

This past Tuesday marked the 40th anniversary of “715” – the day Hank Aaron passed Babe Ruth and officially became the home run king. Hank hit 733 homers as a Brave, and 755 in his career. Hank had finished the 1973 season with 713 HRs.

The 14 is more recent: they were division champs 14 consecutive years between 1991 and 2005. Somehow they only managed to win 1 World Series in that span – 1995. Also surprising: somehow the Marlins won it all twice in that span.

Before the game, we hit the Braves HOF and Museum. It was actually a mejor letdown. You’d think the oldest franchise would have the best museum experience, but it was very lackluster. a fake dugout. An old Milwaukee Braves train car. A leaderboard of all the current Braves leaders in every major statistical category. Fake lockers from each of their most successful years.

The franchise records leaderboard, however, was impressive. Some team records are kinda goofy to read. Like that Ricky Nolasco holds half the pitching records for the Marlins. Or Jim Thome holding the Indians home run record. Or that Michael Young leads the Rangers in hits, runs, singles, doubles, triples…and strikeouts. Usually team records are more of a list of players that just wore the uniform the longest. And for younger franchises, that can make the list a bit embarrassing.

But not for the Braves.

Sure, it’s still a list of the longest tenured players. But those players were awesome, and most of the resulting records aren’t going to change…probably ever. A sampling…

  • Innings: Warren Spahn, 5046
  • Wins: Warren Spahn, 356
  • Strikeouts: John Smoltz, 3011
  • Hits: Hank Aaron, 3600
  • Games: Phil Niekro, 740

But one stat that isn’t going to last much longer: most saves. It’s currently held by John Smoltz with 154, but Craig Kimbrel is going to shatter that mark. My prediction: he breaks Smoltz’s record on May 29.

Kimbrel has been amazing in his first 4 years in the league. In 231 appearances he has 139 saves. Some perspective: Mariano Rivera only had 84 saves in 200 appearances in his first 4 years. He’s averaged 46 saves per season, and he strikes out FORTY-THREE PERCENT of the batters he faces. Outrageous.

But we didn’t get to see Kimbrel. Which is about the only disappointment (besides the HOF) from our trip to Turner Field.

photo-16A couple points about food: Atalanta is the home of Waffle House, so naturally there’s one in the left field concourse. But I wasn’t in the mood for a waffle. I opted for the Georgia Dog instead: a foot long hot dog with crunchy cole slaw and sweet sautéed vidalia onions. Holy smokes. absolutely delicious.

I’ve been to a lot of baseball games, and I’ve never seen in-between-inning production brilliance as I did at The Ted. First, in the minutes leading up to the first pitch, they ran the “Oblivious Cam” where they just found people in the ballpark who had no clue they were on the screen and set a timer counting up the amount of time until they noticed. :30…:45…1:00…1:15…and every second the rest of the ballpark laughed louder and louder.

Two other genius moves: The Grounds Crew Inning and the Hug Cam.

Apparently, first baseman Freddie Freeman has a history of hugging everyone. In the dugout, on the field, in the clubhouse – Freeman is a hugger. The Braves marketing department latched onto this and turned it into a brilliant crowd segment. Unlike the Kiss Cam, complete strangers can hug, kids can hug, anyone can hug. No more awkward pairings on the screen. No more “let’s end with an old couple and celebrate their long marriage” sappiness. They ended with a shot of Freddie and one of the Upton brothers (I think) sitting in the dugout. Freeman saw himself on screen, shrugged, and hugged it out with his teammate.

But the best segment: The Grounds Crew Inning.

Set to the tune of the William Tell Overture, when it came time for the grounds crew to run out and smooth over the infield, they sprinted out of the right field tunnel, ran their lap around the infield, set in three new bases, and sprinted back to the tunnel. The camera crew kept cutting from angle to angle in dramatic fashion managing to turn the Crew into the heroes of the moment.

Final piece on Turner before I move on to the game notes: I think it’s super sad that they’re leaving for Cobb County after 2016. The Braves started at The Ted in 1997, which means they’ll have been there less than 20 years.

I just don’t support the idea of baseball being moved to the suburbs. The Braves ran studies on where their primary customers were coming from, and they know they’ll be a success outside the downtown loop. But there’s something beautiful about a crisp clean ballpark among the busy highways and buildings of an urban center. Instead of a beautiful green paradise in the dirty city, it’s reduced to another clean building among the taupe facade of suburbia.

Overall, I loved Turner Field. And I’m glad I got to visit before it isn’t there anymore.

Game Notes:

The Braves destroyed the Nationals, 10-2.

They hit three homers: Justin Upton to CF, Freddie Freeman to RF, and Andrelton Simmons to CF. All three were absolute bombs. Simmons’ was most impressive – it bounced high off batter’s eye above the CF wall. Probably around 430′.

As I mentioned on Twitter yesterday: I’m a huge Andrelton Simmons fan. I’m a sucker for amazing defense, and that’s his primary game. I’m tempted to make an Ozzie Smith comparison, but he has too much power to compare the two on both sides of the ball. I think Simmons is a future Hall of Famer – bold statement in only is second season, but I think he’s only going to get better.

Simmons went 2-5 with a 3B and a HR yesterday.

Aaron Harang started for Atlanta and he continued the dominance he’s displayed so far this season. In 18+ innings, he’s only given up 9 hits. He went 6 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 5 K yesterday…his worst showing of the year somehow.

Gio Gonzalez, on the other hand gave up 6 runs in the first 2 innings – 3 in each – but stayed in the game through 6 innings. Ross Detwiler came in and gave up 4 runs in the 7th – all unearned due to an Ian Desmond error at SS.

I picked the Nationals to win this division after Medlen went down. It’s early, and the Nationals are now 7-5…but all 5 losses are to the Braves. The Braves bats are hot right now, and if Harang and Santana can continue to give them quality starts, this Braves team might win their second straight NL East pennant.

Four down. Twenty-Six to go.

Up Next: Texas Rangers