Game 25: Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, FL

“Oh, you should’ve been here last night.”

At least 4 people told me that during my time at Tropicana Field last night. Why? Well, for starters, they won on Tuesday night, 6-1. It was the second straight win against the Yankees, and since more than half of the fans in attendance were Yankees fans, a series win is a very satisfying thing.

It was also another stop on the Derek Jeter Farewell Tour. The Rays presented him with a kayak with pinstripes, apparently. Personally, I’d rather get the BBQ sauce set that the Royals gave Paul Konerko last night instead, but maybe #2 does more kayaking than the average person. Multiple times over the weekend the typical DER-ek JE-ter *clap, clap, clapclapclap* chant spread throughout The Trop.

So the Yankees fans kept telling me I’d missed the ceremony. Rays fans kept telling me that I’d missed a butt-kicking. I kept jokingly responding with, “a pox upon me for a clumsy lout,” as if I was going to adjust my itinerary to see Derek Jeter get honored. Again.

Tempers flared that night as well when Derek Jeter got hit in the hand in the 8th inning. Both dugouts were warned. Yankees manager, Joe Girardi went off and got tossed. Then the Yankees retaliated and hit Kevin Kiermeier in the next half inning and the dugouts emptied. There wasn’t a brawl, but a lot of jawing at one another while coaches restrained angry players.

But that was Tuesday. Last night was Wednesday. Let’s talk about Wednesday in St. Petersburg.

The Trop isn’t a miserable place, but it also isn’t great. The main entrance and concourse feels like a shopping mall, and you can’t see any of the game through the concourse. The grandstand is one giant bowl and the vendors don’t provide any visibility into that bowl unless you get back to the seats. There are TVs everywhere though, so that’s nice.

The seats are bright blue, which is kinda refreshing and cool, but about 1/5 of them are covered with tarps because the Rays hardly ever come anywhere close to selling out. Unless the Yankees are in town, which they were yesterday, it’s typically a pretty desolate place to see a game.

The worst part about the Trop: the outfield grass. The AstroTurf in Tampa Bay is uuuuuuugly. It’s splotchy and black and streaky in places. It looks greasy and wet in large swaths across the outfield. While most clubs have gorgeously maintained lawns, the Rays basically have an ugly stained carpet. The warning tracks are fake too.

The infield dirt, however, is real, thank goodness.

There’s a giant aquarium tank in the center field stands too. You can touch the rays with your own hands – two fingers, along the wings, according to the tank attendant. They’re rubbery. I didn’t like it.

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Despite this being just the Rays 17th season as a franchise, Tropicana Field is 25 years old. St. Petersburg spent a decade trying to lure a baseball team to come to Florida, and the giant white dome was one of the major moves they made in hopes of landing a team.

The experience bringing the Rays to Tampa Bay was quite the roller coaster ride.

In July 1988, there was a vote that nearly passed to move the Chicago White Sox to St. Petersburg. They had been in talks with the Twins, Mariners, A’s and even the Tigers as their ballparks were growing older to move them to Florida. Talks with the Twins progressed somewhat too, but obviously didn’t work out. In 1993, they tried to land an expansion team, but the Marlins were awarded to South Florida and Rockies to Colorado instead.

At one point – and this is just crazy to think about – the San Francisco Giants even signed paperwork to make the move from crumbling Candlestick Park to play at The Trop. Thankfully, Major League Baseball blocked the move. Can you imagine a world where the Giants play in Florida?*

* – Probably exactly what people were saying when the Giants and Dodgers moved west in the first place.

Finally, the roller coaster of possible suitors ended in 1998 when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays became a thing.

Originally, they wanted to be the Stingrays, but there was another team in Hawaii already called that and Vince Naimoli – the penny-pinching paranoid micromanaging former owner of the Devil Rays – didn’t want to pay the measly $35k it cost to purchase naming rights. So they went with the Devil Rays instead.

A story just to get an idea of the kind of guy Naimoli was: he created a strict No Outside Food rule as to force patrons to purchase everything inside the park. Naimoli enforced this rule extremely well: he would roam the stands himself and if he found someone with outside food, he would ask what gate they had entered through and immediately fire whatever employee was assigned to that gate, no questions asked. Once, a bus of senior citizens came to the ballpark and a woman in a wheelchair was found with a granola bar in her purse. When she was asked to throw it away, she explained that she was a diabetic and needed it to stabilize her blood sugar level. When they wouldn’t budge without her ditching the granola bar, she opted to wait in the bus for 4 hours until after the game was over. That’s the sort of penny-pinching we’re talking about.

There was lots if immediate backlash to the name. The public hated it and they hated the color scheme/logo even more. Naimoli held a public vote between the Devil Rays and Manta Rays. When the voting opened, Manta Rays was winning in a landslide. Slowly and mysteriously, the gap narrowed, and about the time it was almost 50-50, the polls closed and Devil Rays was declared the winner, which was fortunate for Naimoli because all that money spent on “Devil Rays” gear would’ve gone to waste.

Vince Naimoli just didn’t get it. He made his millions by buying failing businesses, slashing all extraneous positions and expenses, and resurrecting it by doing things as extreme as forcing employees to reuse Post-It notes.

As the owner of a baseball franchise, this didn’t translate. The Devil Rays’ didn’t even have a company email account during the majority of his tenure. Everyone had to email from their personal AOL, Yahoo!, or Hotmail address because Naimoli was too cheap to pony up and pay for company email. And the worst part was that everyone was so afraid they’d get fired, no one stood up to his antics. They lived in fear.

The quality of ownership was reflected on the field. The Devil Rays were absolutely dreadful.

While the process of getting a team was a roller coaster, the Devil Rays first decade of existence was anything but. It was more of a flat line. Between 1998 and 2007, the Devil Rays finished dead last in the AL East every year but once, and that year they finished second to last. They lost 90+ games all ten years and 100+ three years.

They were an absolute embarrassment and the laughing stock of Major League Baseball.

So, in 2007, they exorcized the “Devil.”

No, I’m not calling Naimoli the devil. Chill out, you guys. I’m talking about the name change. They dropped the “Devil” and simply became the Rays. And while the team still embraced the sea creature as it’s namesake, it was also an allusion to the other meaning for the word: a ray of sunshine.

Brighter, sunnier days were coming. And soon.

It was time for a change. There was a new philosophy of Rays Baseball. One that centered around defensive analytics and being comfortable going against the grain of baseball tradition. In the same way that the Oakland Athletics’ Moneyball thinking redefined how to win in baseball, the Rays needed to do the same. Otherwise, they’d always stay behind the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL East.

And while I wasn’t calling Naimoli the devil, he did decide to step out of his role as owner. There was a new ownership, new GM, new marketing, new color scheme, new logo…and a new manager who was the perfect match for this new era of baseball at The Trop.

Joe Maddon was hired by the Tampa Bay Rays and he is NOT your traditional manager. He isn’t afraid to push against orthodoxy and do things managers aren’t supposed to do. For example, he doesn’t like to utilize a traditional closer. Instead, he will bring in his best reliever at the most crucial point. If the bases are loaded with 1 out in the 7th, he won’t hesitate to pitch the guy who usually throws the 9th.

He breaks unwritten rules. One time in a game against the Rangers, Maddon intentionally walked Josh Hamilton to pitch to Marlon Byrd with the bases loaded. He didn’t care that it let in a run, the score was 7-2 at the time, he just believed that they were more likely to get Byrd out than Hamilton. Unlike the Naimoli era, ther is no fear in Tampa these days.

In 2007, the new leadership didn’t do much. Why? Because they didn’t feel it was important to win immediately. They could’ve worked hard to put the best team they could out on the field. Instead, they decided to take their time, flip some assets, and play for the future.

“Trust the process,” became their motto.

Royals fans are now familiar with this phrase – their own period of ineptitude, Dayton Moore started utilizing it as well. And now, 8 years later, they have fruits to show for their patience.

But for the Rays, it was much quicker. As in immediately. In 2008 – very next year – the Rays won the American League Championship and advanced to their first World Series. Worst to first.

Granted, spending a decade in the basement had produced a solid crop of young draft talent that was ready to emerge in the majors, but this was a different team – a different franchise and fanbase – than it had been.

The fans are a mixed group. On the one hand, there’s a youthful party vibe to Tropicana Field as might be expected for a young franchise. However, with the large number of retired individuals living in the Tampa area, there seems to be a segment of elderly fans too, but the majority are a raucous bunch.

One of the moves the new management made was to make it fun to come to The Trop. This meant summer concert series and goofy promotions. The most popular was Cowbell Night where fans received cowbells as an homage to the SNL, Blue Oyster Cult skit with Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken. The cowbells stuck and are now around at every home game.

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I was sitting out in right field for most of the night, and there, right in front of me, was Wil Myers. Myers was traded to the Rays two years ago along with Jake Odorizzi in exchange for James Shields and Wade Davis. It was a hotly contested move at the time, and one that seems to have actually paid off for the Royals and the Rays…assuming the Royals don’t blow it down the stretch.

Myers is smooth and casual and makes the game look easy. He made a leaping catch up against the wall last night that most players can’t make.

“Oh, to be young,” says Ichiro, probably. The Yankees right fielder spends literally every spare moment in the field bending and squatting and stretching out to make sure he is as loose as can be. At his age, he can’t walk out and play like he could when he was Myers age.

There was at least a buzz around the place – something that exists only depending on the opponent and/or promotion. Sadly, most of the buzz supported the rival Yanks.

Anyway, all that to say, it was an…okay experience. Not sure what the theme is here yet. Probably something about leadership and communication and fear. I have some ideas but I’ll have to flesh them out a bit before I write any of it down.

For now, some game notes.

Game Notes:

The game was a good one. Both starters pitched well to start the game. Alex Cobb, who nearly threw a no hitter against these same Yankees in his last start against them, retired the Yankees in order the first time through the lineup. He worked around a lead off single to start the fourth, and had 0 runs on 1 hit through 4 innings.

In the bottom half, the Rays got on the board first when Evan Longoria – the most prized of those many early draft picks through the years – hit a solo HR to center field. 1-0 Rays.

Brandon McCarthy started for the Yankees, and he needs to thank his defense for the win last night. In the first inning, Ben Zobrist led off with a single, and then David DeJesus scorched a grounder up the middle that looked destined for the outfield “grass.” Instead, it ended up in second baseman Brendan Ryan’s glove as he dove up the middle. If that ball finds green, it would be 1st & 3rd, nobody out. Instead, it got Zobrist with a 4-6 fielder’s choice. DeJesus got thrown out trying to steal second soon after, and McCarthy, somehow, only faced three batters in the first.

After Longo’s bomb, the wheels started coming off for Alex Cobb. Slowly in the 5th, and then entirely in the 6th.

The 5th started with Cobb hitting Chris Young with a pitch, who scored on a Chase Headley double. Headley then score himself when Ryan doubled two batters later and the Yankees took the lead, 2-1.

Then in the 6th, Cobb gave up a single to Jeter and three walks. Amazingly, the Yankees only plated one run as Jeter tagged up and scored on Myers dazzling play in right field. The Rays got 1 back when DeJesus led off with a triple in the bottom of the 6th, but that was it. Yankees took the final game i the series 3-2 and avoided the sweep.

Twenty-five down. Five to go.

Up next: Miami Marlins.

-apc.

Game 23: Wrigley Field, Chicago

1914-2014.

One hundred years of baseball on the North Side of Chicago.

This wasn’t my first trip to Wrigley Field. I went for the first time as a college student in 2005. These days, I make it up there about once a year or so. I always have the same four thoughts, and in the following order:

1. Did I just step back in time?

This trip, it took about 10 minutes for me to start singing that Huey Lewis song, “Back in Time,” from the Back to the Future* soundtrack. Especially taking the short L trip from downtown and getting off at the Addison exit. Just 15 minutes ago we were at State/Lake in the heart of the downtown shopping district, and now we’re inside a 100 year old ballpark!

* – Interestingly, the Cubs supposedly win the World Series in 2015 when Marty McFly travels to the future in Back to the Future II. We’ll see.

The place is old. There’s a ragtime brass band that walks around and plays music in the ballpark. The organ belts out classic tunes. The men’s room still uses troughs for urinals. It’s authentically classic, and the Cubs have worked hard at maintaining it’s history without compromise.

Wrigley Field is still the premier venue to see an afternoon baseball game. In fact, they didn’t even play night games there until 1988 – they didn’t even have lights! They were planning on installing them in 1941, but they ended up donating the supplies to the war following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Then they swore that they’d never install them, but eventually they caved.

Save for the lights, the ballpark hasn’t changed much. Especially in the last 70 years. The scoreboard was already out there. The upper deck was added in the late 20’s and bleachers were added to the outfield in 1937. But slowly, they keep caving in to make minor modifications to keep up with the times -a small electronic screen highlights the right field wall, and there’s a marquee that circles parts of the grandstand now too.

The Ricketts family, the current ownership of the Cubs and Wrigley Field, have committed $500M worth of upgrades and expansion to the ballpark expanding the concourses, improving the roof and seating around the park, significantly enhancing the Cubs clubhouse and press box areas, and adding rooftop concessions with outdoor seating. All with the goal of preserving the structure and facade of the ballpark for the future.  Because Wrigley Field is worth saving for years to come.

The old time feel of Wrigley is pure. It’s special. Fenway Park is the only comparable experience in all of baseball. I’m thankful they’ve committed to keeping baseball at Wrigley for years to come.

2. Is this ballpark regulation size, or what?

If its possible to get over the old-time feel of the ballpark, my second impression is always about the size and seating of Wrigley.

Somehow, they manage to cram over 41,000 people into that tiny little space. The seats are closer together, and the bleachers account for a lot of it. A lot of the seats are hidden up underneath the upper deck which sits extremely close to the field. It feels tiny and cramped, but it also makes is charming and heightens the camaraderie among the Cubs fans.

I’m used to Kauffman Stadium (only 38,000 fans at capacity) where you have all the personal space you need to spread out and relax. I don’t want to touch my neighbor that I don’t know, and I’m certainly not going to strike up a conversation with them. But at Wrigley, it’s inevitable. The tightness in the stands forces interaction and conversation. Smaller space, yet more people.

The small feel is also aided by the shallow power alleys: 368′ to left-center and right-center field makes the outfield look tiny. It makes up for the shallow alleys by having deep corners: 355 & 353 to left and right fields, respectively.

It’s a cozy experience at Wrigley, but not necessarily comfortable all the time.

3. Where’s the Old Style vendor?

Ooooo yeah. Wrigley Field is possibly the only place in the world where an Old Style manages to hit the spot. It’s not the best, but it’s true to the experience. The name sums it up perfectly.

Unfortunately, this year they quit selling it up tap and now only have it in cans. Bad move if you ask me.

4. Is there anyone sitting in the Steve Bartman seat?

Ah yes, the pinnacle of the Cubs’ curse. But before I explain who Bartman is, I first have to explain the Curse itself.

The Curse is believed to have begun in 1945 when the owner of the local Billy Goat Tavern, Billy Sianis, decided to bring his goat to a World Series game as a publicity stunt. Not surprisingly, the goat smelled, and he was asked to leave “The Friendly Confines” because some other fans were complaining about it. He declared, “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more.”

The Cubs would go on to lose to the Tigers and haven’t been back to the World Series ever since. They last won it all in 1908. Poor Cubbies. Even their curse narrative is somewhat embarrassing.

Okay, on to Steve Bartman.

In 2003*, the Cubs were the closest they’d ever been to making it back to the World Series. It was the eighth inning of Game 6. The Cubs led 3-0 and were up 3 games to 2 against the Florida Marlins. There was one out. Just five more outs, and the Cubs were moving on to the World Series.

* – Ironically, 2003 was the Year of the Goat according to the Chinese zodiac calendar. Next year, 2015, is the first “Year of the Goat” since 2003. You guys, what if Back to the Future actually gets it right?

Luis Castillo was batting for the Marlins, and hit a fly ball down the left field stands. Cubs’ left fielder, Moises Alou, went running over and leapt up against the side wall, attempting to make the catch. Replays indicate that he had a play on the ball and could have recorded the out.

Steve Bartman – poor, poor, Steve Bartman – was sitting in the front row at Wrigley Field right where Alou was jumping for the ball. He was wearing a green turtleneck, glasses, and a Cubs cap with Walkman headphones over his ears. Bartman did what any of us would have done in that situation: he tried to catch the foul ball.

He didn’t make the catch, but he got a solid left hand on it directly above Alou’s outstretched glove. Since the ball was out of the field of play, the umpire couldn’t call fan interference, but it was clear what had happened.

Alou threw an absolute fit. He chucked his glove into the ground. He looked back at Bartman and glared. He yelled into the umpire, shouting for interference.

But no call ever came, and a Cub implosion ensued.

Castillo walked. Ivan Rodriguez singled. Miguel Cabrera reached on an error by the shortstop. Derek Lee doubled. Mike Lowell was intentionally walked. Jeff Conine hit a sacrifice fly for the second out in the inning. Mike Mordecai doubled. Juan Pierre singled. And finally, Castillo – the man whose foul ball had started the whole ordeal – flew out to second to end the inning.

The Marlins sent twelve men to the plate, scored 8 runs, and won the game 8-3. They went on to win Game 7, the NLCS and eventually the World Series.

The image of Steve Bartman sitting with a glum look on his face – eyes teared, neck turtled – is forever etched in my mind. I’ve never felt more sorry for anyone in my life.

This being 2003, there was no big screen to watch the replay on, and no one had the MLB At Bat app to reference either. But slowly, as the carnage ensued on the field, there was a slow fire burning through the grandstand. Fans were getting phone calls and pages from people at home watching the game that it was the guy in the headphones’s fault. Fans started shouting at him. They were throwing peanuts, pointing fingers and dumping beer.

There was a new goat at Wrigley Field.

Every time the cameras cut back to him, he appeared to be getting smaller. Cowering lower with every hitter the Marlins sent to the plate. He needed a police escort to leave the game safely and had patrol cars at his house as well. People suggested he enter the Witness Protection Program and governors offered him asylum from the city of Chicago.

He declined all of those things. He also declines to do interviews. He declines autographs and apparently declined a 6-figure check to do a Superbowl commercial.

The seat – Aisle 4, Row 8, Seat 114 – is now legendary and a favorite for fans like myself to sit in. He isn’t hated around Chicago as he once was, but he is certainly still blamed for the Cubs 2003 playoffs. He still lives in Chicago, but has never been back to Wrigley Field.

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Wrigley Field has an interesting atmosphere these days. At this point, tt’s like the fans have gotten used to “The Curse” and have embraced the lovable loser mentality. It’s not about making the playoffs anymore or even finishing better than 5th in the NL Central (which they’ve done for the last 5 years and currently sit today).

For Cubs fans who go to catch a game at Wrigley, they just want to party it up and win today. If they don’t win? Hey, that’s okay. We still had some fun.

Wrigley is almost a college atmosphere, actually. Lots of young professionals move to the North Side out of college, work downtown and live in the Wrigleyville area. There are cool restaurants and bars surrounding the ballpark, and it’s very reminiscent of a college town.

For the first time in a while, the Cubs are starting to have some hope coming through their farm system. In 2011, the Cubs hired Theo Epstein to be the President of Baseball Operations. Epstein returned winning back to the cursed Boston Red Sox in 2004, and the Cubs hoped he could do the same for them.

But the baseball landscape is different today, and when Epstein came to Boston, there were new statistics and measurements in the work that set the stage for a revolution in baseball. Oakland’s Moneyball mentality had made its way around the league, and the Red Sox were the earliest adopters with the largest wallets.

But the Cubs are making progress behind the scenes, and I was there right on queue to see that “progress” make it’s first appearance at Wrigley Field on Friday afternoon. But more about that in the “Game Notes”.

My largest connection to spirituality here is definitely going to center around curses. Do they exist? Does God curse? Does God care about baseball teams winning or losing? Does God have any role in 106 year curses?

I believe in a God that is for us and not against us. But in baseball, someone has to win and someone has to lose. We might all be praying for God to bless our team’s performance, but the other team is praying a counter-prayer for them to bless their team’s performance instead.

God can’t answer both prayers, can he?

Or here’s another example: a church is holding a picnic for inner city kids. They pray and pray for nice weather, but on the day of the picnic it’s pouring down rain. However, 15 miles away, there’s a farmer and his family who have been praying and praying for rain so his crops might get the moisture they need to grow.

They’ve both been praying, and one’s answer to prayer is perceived as a curse to another. Interesting.

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Game Notes:

The “progress” on the field that I referenced earlier? His name is Javier Baez. He’s a power hitting infielder who has been coming up through the Cubs system for a few years now. He’s the first in what is supposed to be a wave of 3 or 4 prospects that the Cubs have been grooming to turn around the organization from lovable losers to lovable winners again.

Friday night was Baez’s first game at Wrigley Field. They had called him up from the minors just three days earlier. In his first big league game, he hit a go ahead HR in the 12th inning to win the game against Colorado. In his third game, he went 3-4 with two HRs. Then in his Wrigley Field debut on Friday, he stroked a single on his first swing of the game and came around to score the first run of the game.

But then he struck out the next 4 times up. Ouch.

The game was a good one: an afternoon matchup against the Rays. These teams scored a single run in 7 different frames making for a back-and-forth game. The Rays first run came in the 3rd with a leadoff HR from Desmond Jennings. Tied up, 1-1.

The Cubs retook the lead in the 4th. With 1 out, Arismendy Alcantara walked, advanced when Ryan Sweeney reached base on a throwing error by the pitcher and scored on a John Baker single. 2-1 Cubs

A leadoff triple from Sean Rodriguez started the 7th inning. Two batters later, Curt Casali hit a ball sharply to third, but the Cubs weren’t quick enough to get Rodriguez at the plate. Tied up again, 2-2.

In the 8th, Ben Zobrist doubled and scored on a Rodriguez single making it 3-2 Rays, but the Cubs answered in the bottom of the 9th when Luis Valbuena led off with a single and came around to score and make it 3-3.

Free baseball was disappointing, however. The Rays quickly made it 4-3 in the 10th with three consecutive singles, and the Cubs went quietly in the bottom half – K, K, 1-3.

Both starters, Chris Archer for the Rays and Tsuyoshi Wada for the Cubs, pitched very well and neither got a decision.

I left the game disappointed. There’s nothing more fun than celebrating a Cubs win with a “Go Cubs Go!” Instead, it was a melancholy walk to the L Station – which was packed with sad fans, so we took a cab instead.

Twenty-three down. Six to go.

Up Next: Minnesota Twins.

-apc.