For the last nine days, I have been traveling with two of my high school classmates on our annual summer baseball trip. Most years, we go to see a game or two together; this year, we expanded the program to make a grand swing through New England and to meet up with two other classmates who live in the Boston area for a game at Fenway Park.
Our first stop was in Pawtucket, Rhode Island to see the PawSox play the Buffalo Bisons. These are AAA teams and we expected this game to be the best minor league game that we would see since the rest of the games would be AA. Such was not the case; the PawSox had no talent left on the squad; with all of the injuries to the Boston Red Sox, anyone who had been in Pawtucket with any promise or with any impressive statistics had already been summoned to the north. At one point, the scoreboard was flashing the International League leaders in various statistical categories and then focused on the leaders on the PawSox in those categories. It listed the top four batting averages for PawSox players who had 150 at bats or more. The fourth highest batting average on the scoreboard was .239. No one was over .290.
The PawSox starting pitcher was Fabio Castro – a small lefthander with a decent fastball and a good change-up. He had one bad inning, which cost him the game; but for the other seven innings, he looked as if he might be useful to the big league team. However, recall that left-handers and Fenway Park do not often co-exist very well…
The Buffalo Bisons are the Mets’ AAA club. Luke Duda is an outfielder who hit a monstrous home run on that night – - it probably went 450 – 475 feet – - but he also struck out twice looking bad each time. I would have to see him a few more times to decide if he is of any likely help to the Mets. The Bisons’ shortstop, Luis Hernandez, made two excellent plays in the field. However, if there is one thing that the Mets do not need it would be another slick fielding shortstop.
The stadium in Pawtucket is old but it still in top condition. The foul areas off first and third base are huge; I doubt there is any other park in the country with such large foul areas. One batter hit a foul popup just behind first base that would have been 20 rows into the seats in any other park; it was an easy put out here in Pawtucket; the first baseman still had a half dozen steps before he reached the rail. Despite the fact that we spent only one day and evening in Pawtucket, I would have to say it seems to be a dreary place with not a lot to do. If I lived there, I would probably buy season tix to the PawSox to assure that I would have “stuff to do”.
The next stop was in Boston where we met up with our two other classmates – - both of whom are huge sports fans in general and baseball fans very specifically. One of them had access to what she called “prime season tickets” and she secured tickets for the Tuesday night game against the LA Angels by asking for them back in March. Let me explain what she meant by “prime tickets”:
We were in the front row – - the real front row and not where they sat Bob Uecker in the famous Miller Lite commercials of yore – - in the field box just to the first base side of the net that protects folks sitting behind home plate.
In the section next to us, one gentleman was wearing a Boston Red Sox World Championship ring. That section is also where owner John Henry sits when he attends games.
One of us got a ball tossed at us by Mike Lowell. Another one of us almost fell over the wall and onto the field reaching for a ball that was rolling by the wall there.
All of that stuff describes the seats only. Here is a sense of how exciting the game was from sitting in those seats. One of the attendees – - who shall not be identified here for safety reasons – - is a diehard Yankees’ fan. The Red Sox won this game; and yet, he too had a great time. That is how enjoyable the evening was…
Our cultural events in Boston included a visit to the Boston Science Museum for an afternoon and to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library for the better part of a day. The Boston Science Museum is excellent; it is on a par with the Field Museum in Chicago and the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. If you are of “a certain age” and remember where you were when you heard that President Kennedy had been shot, you will probably enjoy a visit to the library. We had a great time there – - even though getting a cab to take us back from the library to the center of the city was only slightly more complicated than the logistics for the D-Day invasion.
The next stop was Portland Maine to see the Portland Sea Dogs take on the Atloona Curve. This was a game that started at noon on a bright sunny day without a cloud in the sky. The temperature was in the high 70s and there was a slight breeze. When the radio guy in Portland said – - as he surely did – - that this was a perfect day for baseball, he was not exaggerating. The game was a slugfest. Altoona led 6-0 after two innings; Portland rallied to take a 9-6 lead with a grand slam followed by another home run in the eighth inning; Altoona rallied for two in the top of the ninth but fell short by a score of 9-8.
The most noticeable things about the Portland stadium and the relationship of the town to the team were the sponsorships.
The left field foul pole was labeled as the “Bingas Fowl Pole”. Based on a chat with one of the locals, Bingas sells chicken wings.
The third to fifth batters in the Portland line-up – - the meat of the order – - is sponsored by a local meat company.
The clean-up hitter is sponsored by ServiceMaster.
The Sea Dogs’ first hit was sponsored by someone that I forgot to write down.
The ninth batter in the Sea Dogs’ line-up was sponsored by a local pizza joint.
Before the game started, there was a Sea Dogs’ player at a table in the concourse signing autographs for anyone in the stadium. One of my traveling companions is a compulsive autograph obtainer and so he took a piece of paper and got a signature – - in case this player blossomed into a future Hall of Fame player. Then we looked at the stats; the player was hitting .164 for the season in AA ball. Just to clarify, that is not a good thing. Given that he was only hitting .164, we considered it a victory that he was able to have his pen make contact with Frank’s piece of paper to produce the autograph…
From what we saw of Portland Maine in our day-and-a-half there, I would say that there really is not much of a reason to go there other than to see a minor league game. Our cultural event was a trip to the Maine Historical Society Museum and the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow house. Not to be too flip about it, but nothing much of any historical significance happened in the Portland Maine area. The Maine Historical Society Museum was about as interesting as watching re-runs of the old ESPN program Cold Pizza. The Henry Wadsworth Longfellow house – - this is where he was born and grew up not where he lived as an adult and wrote his poetry – - is your typical period house with old artifacts and a docent with a canned presentation. Neither place was offensive in any way; at the same time, neither would be worth a revisit even if we were on the same street as the museum with a parking place open out in front.
The downtown area of Portland would politely be described as seedy. There is an obvious effort at gentrification going on there, but there is a long way to go to make it approach the level of “attractive”.
The next stop was Manchester, NH to see the New Hampshire Fisher Cats play the New Britain Rock Cats. Without question, the Fisher Cats’ stadium – - MerchantsAuto.com Stadium – - was the best minor league facility that we saw on this trip and possibly on all of our baseball trips in the past years. It is easy to get in and out of the stadium; the lighting is excellent; there is not a bad seat in the house; the concourse area is spacious. Since the Fisher Cats are affiliated with the Toronto Blue Jays, it is highly appropriate that there is a Hilton Hotel looking over the left field wall with large viewing areas in the hotel for folks to see the game just as there is in Toronto.
As with every other minor league game in the country, the Fisher Cats do all kinds of silly stuff between innings. They have a young woman dressed up as a fairy with wings on her costume; she carries a large toothbrush and so she is the tooth fairy representing someone in the dental health “industry”. She uses the toothbrush to clean the bases between some of the innings. The Knights of Columbus provided the color guard on the evening we were at the game. These senior gentlemen were in full regalia but had obviously not practiced marching in step for about 5 decades. There were five of them; no two were in step; nonetheless, they got a hand from the crowd.
The Fisher Cats look like a very good AA level team. They hit well and the pitcher that evening, Randy Boone – - described to us by one of the locals as the #3 starter on the team – - pitched a dominating two hit game for the full nine innings. He gave up a triple and a single in the first inning and then shut down the Rock Cats from then on. Meanwhile the Fisher Cats’ centerfielder, Darrin Mastrioianni, made several excellent defensive plays in the outfield and hit well and stole a base. He looks like someone who will be promoted to the next level next season and may play in the major leagues some day.
The New Britain Rock Cats’ third baseman that evening was a player listed at 5’3” tall and 145 lbs. At the beginning of the game he was hitting .201 with 0 HRs and 12 RBIs for the season. I checked his stats of this morning and he is now hitting .193 in 81 games this season. At age 25, the likelihood that he will have another growth spurt is minimal. You have to assume that he continues to play minor league baseball because he loves the game and not because he aspires to a major league career.
The Fisher Cats have one of the most useless mascots ever. He/She/It is “Fungo the Fisher Cat”. Mascots are annoying creatures at their very best; this one is inert, lethargic, torpid, lackadaisical, apathetic – - and annoying – - all at the same time. If someone were to take a fungo bat upside the head of this lump, no jury composed of Fisher Cats season ticket holders would convict the assailant.
The next stop was Cooperstown, NY for two days at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. If you have not been to Cooperstown and you have even a passing interest in baseball, you need to put this on your “bucket list”. Of the three major sports in the US, the baseball Hall of Fame is far and away the best museum. This was my third visit to the baseball Hall of Fame – the last one was about 24 years ago – and the new exhibits are definitely worth a look.
For those who have not been there, Cooperstown is “out of the way”. There is no Interstate that runs next to the town where you get off at some exit, drive 3 miles and you are at the city limits. It is a small, isolated, quiet burg; as one of the local bars advertises on the T-shirts its’ servers wear:
“Cooperstown: A drinking town with a baseball problem.”
We ate dinner at a restaurant that had been recommended to us that is basically across the street from the Hall of Fame. The food was very good. The service was the worst I have encountered in my life – - and I have been in 48 of the 50 states and 41 different countries. I shall be sending a letter describing the “issues” in detail to the Maitre d’Hotel there later today…
The final stop was disappointing. We went to Saratoga for a “day at the races”. We left early because the weather was dreadful and trainers were scratching horses left and right. The first race had 14 entries; only 6 ran in the race. The second race had 12 entries; only 5 ran in the race and two of them were coupled as an entry. The $2 Quinella for Race 2 paid $2.10. The third race had 14 entries; only four went to the post. You get the idea… We left having won the grand sum total of $1.20.
But that is not why the stop at Saratoga was disappointing. The last time I was at Saratoga was in the early 1990s. I have always said that Saratoga and Delmar (in California) are my two favorite tracks in the country. Saratoga always exuded class and stature; the facilities were always kept in A-1 condition; there was a charm to the place. Horseracing has gone through a decline in the past decade or so and the New York Racing Association has had serious financial problems for a while now. There was even some doubt that the Saratoga meet would be held this summer due to the NYRA financial situation. Nonetheless, Saratoga today is nothing like the Saratoga of 20 years ago. The place needs a new coat of paint pretty badly; even if a paint job is too expensive, the place could use a good cleaning and power washing. The TV sets that show the races in the grandstand area and that show the simulcast races from other tracks are at least 5 years out of date – - and maybe 10 years out of date in terms of size and definition. Let me channel Thomas Wolfe here:
“You can’t go home again.”
And by that I do not mean that your parents moved and did not leave you a forwarding address!
Despite the disappointment of the final stop, this was a wonderful Baseball Odyssey meeting up with old friends and enjoying several cultural events along the way. Naturally, the discussion turned to what kinds of plans we might make for next year. No final decision has been made, but I can give you a hint.
My assignment once the 2011 MLB schedule is announced is to see if there is a day during the season when the Cubs and White Sox play on the same day…
Finally, let me close with a comment from Greg Cote in the Miami Herald regarding Halls of Fame:
“The College Football Hall of Fame inducted 22 more new members, including former Cane Gino Torretta. Not real exclusive. Evidently, all you need to do to get inducted is drive past a college football stadium.”
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports…