Category Archives: America’s Pastime

North Stars: Dispatches from All-Star Week, Part Three: The Soggy Bombin’ Boys

The optimal conditions for an object set in flight to remain in flight are dependent on the following simple four items; air pressure, wind, humidity, temperature. At higher elevations, air pressure is lower, meaning the air is less dense, creating less friction on the flying object, and it remains in flight longer. Warm temperatures have the same effect of reducing air density. Humidity is the same again; the higher the dew point, the less dense the air is. Wind direction and speed are, well, wind direction and speed. The preferred conditions for an object set in flight to remain in flight are as follows: high elevation, a strong tailwind, humid air, hot temperatures.

The city of Minneapolis, Minnesota, in July, aside from being barely over 500 feet above sea level in places along the Mississippi River, is perfectly suited to keep flying things in flight soaring.  Temperatures can easily exceed 100 degrees and the humidity can suffocate all who haven’t lived in the Florida or Louisiana swamps. More specifically, at the downtown address of 353 North 5th Street, home of Target Field, the Minnesota Twins, and site of the 2014 Major League Baseball Home Run Derby, weather patterns have lent themselves to a curiously dependable wind behavior: one that blows from home plate towards the METRO Blue Line Light Rail station, which sits just beyond the left field bleachers. Low air pressure. Good tailwind. Humid. Hot.

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Did you know Minneapolis is the birthplace of the Home Run Derby? I didn’t, but everyone around the Twin Cities does. Turns out, the 1985 All-Star festivities at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome held a new event called “The All-Star Home Run Contest.” It pitted the National League vs. the American league instead of the individual event we know today; admission was two dollars, it did not air on television, and for as eternally expansive as Major League Baseball’s video archive is, they do not possess a single frame of footage from the event. It is remembered for a few quirky reasons: the first is that one of the kids shagging balls in the outfield, a graduated senior from Saint Cloud Apollo high school named Sean Moe, mistakenly (and instinctively) robbed the NL’s final batter, Ryne Sandberg, of a home run, keeping the NL’s lead at two. The second is that Twins player and fan favorite Tom Brunansky, who hit last, capitalized on that slim margin and belted four home runs, winning the competition for the home town American League. The event was small scale, and Derbys since have more prominently etched themselves into our memories. The very first All-Star week Home Run Derby has since been forgotten, but it is remembered by the state of Minnesota, its home.

In 2014, the All-Star game returned to Minnesota after a nearly 30 year absence, which was wonderful news to Twins fans suffering through an extended playoff drought and an excellent chance to show off the jewel that is Target Field to the greater baseball audience, with its yellowed limestone walls, downtown skyline just beyond right field and the shaking neon hands of Minnie and Paul. While Target isn’t known as a home run bandbox like, say, Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark or Coors, there was still incredible news flooding in in the form of the names signing up to launch baseballs into the night: the Blue Jays’ “Joey Bats,” Jose Bautista. Twins hero whose career had resurrected in Colorado, Justin Morneau. Cuban defectors and human highlight reels Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes (the defending champion). And the best news? After years of futile pleas for his participation, the real life Paul Bunyan and a man who broke a Major League scoreboard with a laser beam homer, Miami’s Mike Giancarlo Stanton was in the field. Nine of the 10 participants were righties, and wouldn’t be subjected to Target’s cavernous right field and raised walls. Fireworks were guaranteed.

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What I’m trying to say is the stars seemed aligned for something indelibly wonderful to happen. A field full of absolute mashers in a Derby returning to its prodigal home in a stadium that would cater to right-handed lumberjacks spending their evening mercilessly expelling baseballs from Target Field towards Saint Paul, Stillwater, Wisconsin. And I would be there, fulfilling a lifelong dream of seeing the Derby in person.

It was those aligned stars that made reality’s horrible sucker punch land that much harder. The temperature at the time of the contest’s first home run was 54 degrees. Fifty four. It would prove to be, quite literally, the coldest day in the history of this state in July, and baseballs do not fly in the cold. The wind was doing its part by blowing at a stiff 19 miles per hour, however, slight problem; it was blowing straight in towards home plate, and baseballs do not fly into the wind. And the humidity? Oh, it was pretty humid. Humid enough to rain for five hours, and baseballs do not fly, nor do they do much of anything, in the rain.

It was that same sucker punch that made what transpired even more astonishing.

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Minnesotans remember and treasure everything about their jewel of a state, like that Bob Dylan hails from here despite him barely acknowledging that fact whatsoever; perhaps when the rest of the country writes you off as the inhospitable hellhole Antarctica of the lower 48, a certain “me versus the world” group mentality takes hold. And Minnesotans, and I’m talking real Minnesotans (so not me, not yet anyway), are used to making the best of the worst, of curveballs or bad poker beats; when it stays under the freezing point for three consecutive months, uninterrupted, you develop a knack for that. Like I said, I am not yet one of those people, and I had been passionately angry about the weather for 48 hours before I walked through the Target Field gates for what is now known as Gatorade All-Star Workout Day. It’s a fancy-ish sounding way to say the All Stars are on the field, taking some hacks in the cages, the pitchers are long tossing, everyone is screwing around and having a good time (it’s very strange to see these mythic figures, lionized by Sportscenter or the Topps Company into immortality, out stealing each others hats or cracking jokes or chasing their kids around the field while the youngsters spill melted Icee syrup onto their fathers’ baseball pants). I was trying very hard to have a similar good time, but was full of impotent and pointless bitterness at the weather and a petulant “why today, how could this happen” attitude. I was fortunate enough to be close to the first base line for warm-ups, maybe four rows away from the American League in red, which was helping tremendously. The sun was out and the grass was emerald and former Tampa Bay Ray hero Scott Kazmir was warming up with newly former Tampa Bay Ray hero David Price. Yu Darvish and Koji Uehara were doing the same. Some unlucky soul was tasked with catching Max Scherzer as he unloaded .50 caliber rifle shots from his right arm. The Captain himself, Derek Jeter, in his last All-Star game as he retires, trotted out to great applause and handshakes in every direction. My camera worked overtime (photos down at the bottom, if you’re interested), but then the rain came and chased everyone off the field. It was brief, but enough to curtail most of the AL players’ warm ups. The NL then took their turn, and I fished through a sea of navy for the players representing my Atlanta Braves, Craig Kimbrel and Julio Teheran. Freddie Freeman made it easy on me by shagging balls at first. When Freddie headed in to take some hacks, he got in one swing before the rain came again, a downpour this time, and Workout Day was over before it even started. At 7:16 pm, while the P.A. was bellowing “We hope to start momentarily,” the grounds crew slowly and soggily tarped home plate, again.  As fans fled to dry safe havens, Luke Bryan’s ‘Rain is a Good Thing’ played out from the speakers, and the Jumbotron pacified the increasingly distraught crowd with highlights of the Twins 1991 World Series victory (the Twins beat my Braves that year, so between the pained anguish on Tom Glavine’s face and the Luke Bryan music, the evening was not going well). It was very cold and it was wet and I was angry and frustrated and lamenting what had become of an opportunity I’d dreamed of for decades. Hiding from the downpour, I was lonely enough (regrettably, couldn’t find any one else to go with me) to text a buddy in the left field stands asking if he thought God hated baseball, or Minnesota, or maybe both. He said he wondered the same thing.

The rain did not stop, but once ESPN finally saw it fit to get the sodden show on the road, Cincinnati’s Todd Frazier and hometown Twins hero Brian Dozier were the first offered up to the elements, both mustering a paltry two homers in the rain and swirling winds. I got angrier that they’d been robbed but the Minnesota faithful were enjoying themselves, cheering for Dozier happily. They were making the best of it, like they always do, even though the two hitters’  fly ball outs landed in pools in the infield and a vendor actually passed by me yelling “HOT CHOCOLATE, HEYAH!” Then something funny happened during Frazier’s turn at the plate, which a friend pointed out the timing to me the next day: after hours of rain delays and cold misery, right when Frazier finally launched the night’s first home into the left-center field bullpens, an enormous and vivid rainbow erupted over the city skyline. The fans happily acknowledged it as the P.A. announced its presence to the stands and for the first time that night, something fun had happened. It was as if the game itself and the tradition of the Derby were just as fed up with the soggy conditions as we were, and now they were going to fight back, Frazier’s home run a defiant paintbrush rebelliously recoloring the pressing gloom. It would seem that whether or not God was interested in the night’s proceedings, those mysterious baseball gods were indeed in Minneapolis, and so was newly adopted son Todd Frazier, just making the best of things.

Adam Jones and Troy Tulowitzki got the event going in earnest, sending balls flying across the stadium. Morneau conquered that long right field wall a few times, one of which managed to get wrapped up in the seal of Hennepin County atop the stadium flagpoles. Joey Bats put on the night’s first great show, launching ten home runs in his first round that landed almost entirely in the second deck. Defending champ Yoenis Cespedes could not get in a groove, and narrowly avoided early elimination before heating up in the second round and absolutely catching fire in the third. Watching him in person was the biggest surprise of the night, because Yoenis Cespedes is a freaky robot. He is not unlike one of those golf ball testing robots; his swing happens in the blink of an eye like a rubber band snapping and the torque generated on his bat by how fast he spins around is terrifying. It’s amazingly powerful and, more impressively, consistent, regardless of where the pitches were thrown. He is built for this competition (and it wasn’t surprising he went on to win it again; he may not lose for many years). No one had defended their Derby crown since Junior Griffey in the ’90s, but that won’t be what those in attendance that night will remember.

What they will remember is that Giancarlo Stanton is a massive human being. He is 6′ 6″ and it shows. When sportswriters use the cliché that some hitter is so big that the baseball bat looks like a toothpick in his hands, this guy makes it true. It does look like that. It’s silly to behold him waggle it over his shoulder as he waits for a pitch. He is country strong and his bat speed is otherworldly. He is likely the main attraction that 90% of the fans in attendance that night had come to see, and my god, he did not disappoint. His first swing was a home run that barely cleared the left field fence, but it was lofted so high into the atmosphere the crowd reacted as if it was going to scrape one of the hundreds of jets descending overhead towards MSP. He made a couple outs before launching another one, the first of the night (and the first I had ever seen) land in the third and topmost deck at the stadium. The crowd cheered and the NL All-Stars looking on danced and laughed at the show being put on. He somehow seemed to improve on each shot, with another bomb that was absolutely belted flying to straightaway center on a flat trajectory. No one hits home runs to straightaway center at Target, and if they do, the balls land on the grass berm just over the wall. This ball cleared the berm and cleared the towering batters eye before landing in a thin strip of seats just below the neon Minnie and Paul fixture. Absolutely no one has ever hit a ball there, and yet it was somehow upstaged a minute later.

With one out remaining, Giancarlo Stanton almost left Target Field. Click that link. Watch that video. It’s un. believable. Watching the Derby in person, you quickly develop a decent register of what is and what is not going to be a home run without Chris Berman’s call to alert you to greatness. It’s something like optical benchmarks, and you see what angle the ball leaves the bat and how quickly it passes little checkpoints on that trajectory, so the second the ball came off his bat, everyone knew something really batshit crazy had happened. The crowd, employing those same trained eyes, gasped really loudly. Normally, it’s pretty easy to track a baseball in flight as long as you see it leave the bat, but the gray murk overhead made that difficult and the ball disappeared (the first .gif in that link illustrates this perfectly). So we all looked up and ahead to see what patch of fans was going to stand up to catch the ball, betraying where it was going to land, if it ever did. The people who ultimately stood up were fans in that impossible third deck, and they were four rows shy of the Minneapolis night sky. A man in a blue rain jacket caught the ball once it returned to Earth (ESPN projected the distance of the shot at 510 feet, a Mickey Mantle-esque type blast), and on a normal July night in the City of Lakes, I cannot imagine where it would have landed. Stanton had to step out of the batters box while the crowd cheered and tried to make sense of what they just saw, while his NL teammates laughed with wide eyes and held their heads in disbelief (see the hilarious NL MVP Andrew McCutchen’s reaction in the second .gif in that link). Watching the replay, which I must have done forty times by now, you can see the ball erupt into the night sky faster than a launched missile, then disappear, and then, almost knowingly and defiantly, land just shy of a dozen flags lining the stadium lip, all blowing straight in towards home plate to irrefutably guarantee that, tonight, such a home run would be impossible. In the cold. And through the rain. I suppose you can learn a lot from a baseball about flying in spite of the elements.

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The evening did have a lot of lows for its wonderful highs; the cold and rainy weather never eased up and the hyper-talented Puig didn’t hit a single home run, even managing a check swing out at one point. After Stanton put on his fireworks display, he got a bye to the third round, which sadly backfired when he had to wait almost two hours to hit again and he got cold and out of his rhythm. He hit no home runs in that third round, losing to rainbow-maker Todd Frazier, who hit one measly home run. Joey Bats suffered the same fate of waiting too long between at bats and was easily defeated by Cespedes. The final round was an anticlimactic second coronation for Cespedes as he only heated up further, trouncing the overmatched Frazier. I am quite sure most of America discussed how boring it was the next day at the water cooler. They’re not wrong, I’m sure it sucked to watch at home. And I woke up the next morning still furious about the weather, about my lost opportunity for what could have been, but time heals all wounds, including petty ones like this. The experience was amazing, and Minnesotans are used to making the best of the worst, even newly minted ones. Besides, now I can say I was there for the coldest Home Run Derby ever staged, even if it wasn’t the most memorable ever staged. Time will tell where Cespedes and Stanton’s performances will be remembered among the all-time standout Derby moments, but I doubt they will be very high. People will remember watching Sammy Sosa hit baseballs out the open windows of Miller Park in 2002 much more vividly. They’ll have fonder memories of Mark McGwire nearly hitting the Massachusetts Turnpike in ’99, and absolutely nothing that happened this week will rank within a mile of the redemption of Josh Hamilton at Yankee Stadium in 2008, but that’s ok. It may have been lackluster but I went. I was there to see it all. And this year’s Derby may be quickly forgotten, but it will be remembered fondly by the state of Minnesota, its home.

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[PART ONE]
[PART TWO]

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North Stars: Dispatches from All-Star Week, Part Two “The Running of Fat Joe”

Before we’re off and running, if you somehow ended up here and you’re unsure of how that happened or what I’m talking about, go on back to PART ONE. It’ has lots of pictures!

After the highs (BASE STEALING RACE) and terrifying lows (sad Rollie Fingers sitting at a sad table by himself with a big sad scowl on his face) of Fan Fest, the second stretch of the All Star festivities had begun: the Futures Game, a display of the best prospects and up and comers, and the Celebrity Softball Game, a mind blowing mixture of hall of fame baseball players, local sports heroes and humanoids MTV has mass produced. Before we arrived at Target Field, however, we did come perilously close to losing Mark, who got distracted by an upcoming attraction at the Orpheum, and it wasn’t the Book of Mormon or Australian musical theater.

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Close call, but we moved on to Hubert’s to watch the World Cup final (boo hiss, Germany), and then ultimately on to our seats, right over home plate surveying the perfect Summer weather and the decorated Target Field.

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The field! Magnificent! Two very important features to note here: the MN state outline cut in center field and the fact that starting games three hours early at 4 pm makes the sun shine through the top deck, giving the field the terrifying appearance that the Cheshire Cat is here to cause mayhem (pitching mound is the nose). As the remainder of the night was high intensity baseball action, photos didn’t prove so interesting. So, curveball (zing!): running diary for part two! Let’s get to it: the FUTURES GAME.

4:43 pm, Sunday, July 13, 2014 – The Futures game has proven critically boring, as it is a baseball game with no one we’ve heard of being dominated by pitchers who are only asked to get three outs in their brief appearance. Solution: gambling. A fantasy draft is held with the two team’s rosters (USA versus international players), and whoever “owns” the inevitable game MVP wins, apparently a beer or something. My team: Kris Bryant (Cubs AAA uber-prospect), Francisco Lindor (once took photos of him playing in high school at Montverde Academy, cool!), Joey Gallo (a AA Texas Ranger, aka Frisco RoughRider, and I played on that field once, cool!), and Noah Syndergaard (who will terrorize my Braves for decades with Matt Harvey in New York, crap, not cool).

5:16 pm – Louie the Loon claims victory in the mascot race, and there was much rejoicing. God bless him.

5:25 pm – Boredom leads to the question being posed that if the four of us could select any individual to participate in the night’s celebrity softball game, who would we choose? I will let you all guess who chose who, but the four given answers ranged from the expected to the delusional, and from ridiculous to somehow even more ridiculous.

5:42 pm – The jumbotron is showing famous baseball moments called the “T-Mobile GameChangers.” This one is Kurt Gibson’s home run, and all four of us simultaneously and silently pantomime the famous fist pump as he crosses second base, proving to easily be the highlight of the Futures game.

6:01 pm – Jokes have been flying all night every time the center fielder makes a catch (see field photo above) as to whether it was caught in Fargo, Grand Rapids, in Pequot Lakes, etc; one if lofted into the air that is caught roughly in the Apostle Islands of Wisconsin. We also now realize the shortstop is clearly wearing yellowed/beige pants unlike everyone else wearing white. This is stimulating stuff.

6: 41 pm – The game mercifully ends with a fly ball caught somewhere near Grand Portage State Park and, thanks to a two-run bomb from the future Ranger, Joey Gallo is named game MVP . Not only did Team USA win, but I did too! I feel accomplished. Bring on the celebrities being ridiculous!

7:00 pm – The celebs have begun warming up and stretching. Adrian Peterson quickly reveals himself to be abysmal and unable to catch a ball, leading Ben’s sister-in-law to remark “Oh, look. He can’t hold on to that ball either.” Some quick highlights of the participants: National League is fielding Ozzie Smith, Larry Fitzgerald, Mike Piazza, Jennie Finch, John Smoltz, country singer David Nail, Andre Dawson, Doc Gooden and Bravo TV host Andy Cohen amongst a small stable of MTV personalities no one’s heard of. The American League counters with Ricky Henderson, AP, Fat Joe (who still looks skinnier in his Yankees hat than C.C. Sabathia), Zach Parise, January Jones, Rob Riggle, Jim Thome, Rollie Fingers, Celeb softball legend/Desperate Housewives alum James Denton and more MTV personalities. Both teams are also fielding one vet who lost a limb in Afghanistan, and both receive deservedly lengthy standing ovations (the AL player’s ovation turning into exuberant cheering when he began doing one-armed push ups). A brief fear that the AL is stacked is assuaged when, SURPRISE LATE ADDITION FOR THE NL, Nelly is here! When the on-field host asks Nelly if he plans to “go deep” tonight, Ben intervenes with “Nelly always goes deep.

The 1st inning – Nelly indeed does go deep (turns out he’s as good at softball as the film editor for ‘The Longest Yard’ convinces you he is at football). So does Mike Piazza, and Fat Joe goes first to third on a Parise double, I think sending every fan in the stadium through time and space. Did I say double? I mean Adrian Peterson almost Jose Canseco’d the ball over the wall by sucking.

The 2nd inning – David Nail hits a bomb. Someone makes a terrible “nailed it” pun. Andy Cohen manages to not only NOT run back to first on a caught ball, he doubles down on his idiocy and opts to run to third. Also, the MTV hatchling that hit it attempts to run to second apparently unaware you are out if someone catches the ball when you hit it.

The 3rd inning – Two realizations are hitting me as the NL is dominating. The first is that this game has to be the highest annual “phrases you’d never imagine you’d speak” per capita situation imaginable after we discuss how something called a “Melanie Iglesias” didn’t cover second base on a potential double play ball from OZZIE SMITH. The second is I can’t believe that this is how I’m going to watch John Smoltz pitch for the last time in my life. He proceeds to remove himself from the game for Jennie Finch, who promptly strikes out MTV’s Sway (another ridiculous sentence).

The 4th inning – While we, or at least I, have managed to spend the entire game stupidly gawking at January Jones (I think she had a personal wind machine to blow her hair around), we now notice no one is talking to her on the AL bench. Based on the collection of macho moron men on this team, this does not bode well for how compelling a conversation with January is.

The 5th and 6th innings – Unknown. We lost track as a friend from work invited us to his seats to buy us a drink. At some point Adrian Peterson demanded Finch throw him her normal softball pitches, causing his swings to almost screw him into the dirt like an ice auger. Both Nelly and David Nail hit second home runs, leading them to be declared co-MVPs. The game ended when Nelly booted a ball at third causing Sway to round it for home. Nelly threw a dart to Piazza who got Sway in the ensuing rundown, prompting Jake to observe, “Perhaps Sway shouldn’t have gotten into a rundown between John Smoltz and Mike Piazza.”

Post-game – An impromptu home run derby touches off, and the fans are now expectant of the softball fireworks show from future hall of famer and brief Twins hero Jim Thome that never manifested during the game. Instead, David Nail (seriously, wtf?) hits the most home runs, and proves to be absolutely awesome, other than his abysmal choice in hats. The game concluded with fireworks set to various songs, one of which was ‘Let It Go’ from ‘Frozen,’ promptly a really weird stadium-wide sing along.  The entire day and evening also came to a magnificent end when upon exiting the stadium, we were privileged to follow this situation back to our car. And yes, that is the Declaration of Independence written through the shirt.

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God bless baseball. God bless America. Hope you enjoyed a laugh! If you’re not exhausted yet, the third and final installment is right this way.

North Stars: Dispatches from All-Star Week, Part One “13 Going On 30”

A few weeks ago, something I’ve wanted to do my entire life happened: the MLB All-Star festivities rolled through my city. I was fortunate enough to attend every event but the actual game (don’t have that kind of green lying around just yet), and afterwards it seemed like an excellent experience to regale at least three or four people with stories from! Part 2 will be a running diary of All-Star Sunday night and Part 3 is a more standard piece of Dane blog writing (for the uninitiated, that means comically too long and weirdly serious while at no point achieving coherence), but this is Part 1, a photo blog of our trip through Fan Fest! Prepare yourself for the tales of four men over, on or rapidly approaching 30 years of age acting like children, and really dumb children at that. You’ve been warned. Let’s get to it!

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IMG_0482 IMG_0484IMG_0490 Welcome to Fan Fest, which is basically just a giant baseball lovers nerd-out-athon; you can play some baseball, see some famous baseball stuff, meet famous baseball people and, naturally, buy overpriced baseball stuff (and LOVE IT). It was massive, taking up an entire wing of the downtown Minneapolis Convention Center, and making it that much harder on us to find Jennie Finch, who was somewhere on the premises. Spoiler alert: we did not find Jennie Finch. IMG_0491 But that’s ok, because we did meet this fabulous lady, Vera Clemente! Vera is the widow of Pittsburgh, baseball, sports and general life hero Roberto Clemente, a baseball hall of famer who died in the peak of his talents because he chose to fly relief supplies to earthquake-affected Nicaragua and his plane crashed en route. Walking up and shaking her hand, I did successfully manage to stammer, “MyfamilyisfromPittsburghandweloveyouandweloveyourhusband!” She responded, “Oh! Pittsburgh! My second home!” That was the extent of it (I did regrettably overestimate Vera’s English) before a stranger took about nine pictures of us. I’m going to ballpark this shot at ‘Picture #7’ based on Vera’s priceless expression/declining interest in feigning excitement to hang out with us any longer. After we gathered our bearings, signed some safety waivers (if you know some of the members of the above photo, this was a crucial step) and successfully dodged the baseball card tables (almost passed out), it was on to the silent auction. IMG_0498IMG_0499 IMG_0500 IMG_0501 IMG_0502 IMG_0503 As best as we could tell, our four combined salaries may have been able to briefly hold the highest bid on, like, a press pin, or a rosin bag or one of Lenny Dykstra’s used spitters. The auction was predictably pricey and full of the most awesome of things. The above is a signed shot of Maz’s 1960 World Series walk-off homer (for my family) and that blue Brooklyn Dodgers cap was Jackie Robinson’s (for everyone else), prompting Jake to remark “I would pay a lot of money for them just to let me put that on my head and give it back.” IMG_0508 Next up were the trophy displays of every major award given to baseball players, which we patiently waited in line for 20 minutes so we could be warned “HANDS AT YOUR SIDES!” repeatedly while standing next to a replica of the World Series Trophy. Indeed it was beautiful, and secret benefit: this put both the Twins fans and the Braves fan in this photo far closer to that trophy than the Twins or Braves have been in 20 years. IMG_0510 We had the Rookie of the Year award, which is regrettably not an acting commendation bestowed annually by Daniel Stern… IMG_0512

The MVP trophy. Whether it goes to the old school’s MVP (eye test) or the new school’s (sabermetrics), this thing is decidedly old school looking…

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The Home Run Derby trophy (more to come on that front)…

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The Silver Slugger, which I’ve always wanted to see hit a baseball (what if it exploded!?!?!) …

IMG_0520 The Clemente Award, given to players for off-field charitable actions and giving back to their communities (did I mention we love Roberto Clemente?)… IMG_0516

Dennis Farina admiring the World Series MVP trophy…

IMG_0521 aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand lastly, my favorite, a Gold Glove, which was inexplicably kept apart from the other trophies on a pedestal by itself in the middle of the show floor. Confusing. Also awesome. IMG_0522 IMG_0524 IMG_0526 Next up was the Hall of Fame display, on loan to us all the way from Cooperstown, prompting an immediate discussion of what goes into transporting these items, as well as a logical follow-up discussion of how our four combined intellects could execute a heist of one of any of the pieces on display. Spoiler alert: we chuckled and then walked around in an orderly line without touching anything. It was a good year for a Braves fan on the scene! Congrats to Bobby, Mad Dog and Glav! I hope you were all successfully enshrined this weekend without Maddux peeing on anything. My apologies to the Big Hurt for being cropped out of that photo. IMG_0529 They did let us into a mock locker (mocker?) room (which led you up a simulated stadium tunnel to the fake field) where this majestic carpet stretched out under folding chairs. Vera was here again, answering questions and looking more than ever like her appearance fee was too paltry to substantiate her continuing hand-waving. Want to give big props to our group here as only one adult in this photo is actually wearing shoes with tied shoelaces; it’s actually a decent surprise they even let Ben in here wearing plaid cloth slip-ons. Speaking of shoelaces… IMG_0531 After that we reached the skills challenges on the back wall, more or less what we’d been most excited for all morning. First on the docket was the speed pitch, prompting Mark to actually tie his shoes in preparation. This is a bigger deal than any of you realize. IMG_0533 IMG_0534 IMG_0536 As you can see, iPhones are amazing at capturing motion (OH MY GOD MARK’S HAAAAAND), but we all took four pitches at the Oxi Clean advertisement baseball dryer pictured above. The speed guns were quite wonky, and too dependent on your pitch going directly in the dryer, but it’s always a good time reminding yourself reality is quite different than your childhood delusions. Not pictured: yours truly, who after hitting the shadow batter directly in the face three times in a row, took the speed pitch title with a 69 mile per hour absolute MISSILE (oh my god we’re so old and worthless now) though, again, these radar guns were highly suspect. Rotator cuff injuries for everyone! Next stop: throwing accuracy. IMG_0537 Here is a riveting photo of the Firestone advertisement baseball tires that were the throwing accuracy station. I remain unclear of what we were attempting to accomplish here, but we threw a bunch of balls at tires, and some went through those tires and also one Mark threw flew back into the speed pitch area, endangering hundreds if not thousands. Jake and I also managed to throw a ball before the staff told us to start, leading to jokes at our expense from said staff as well as the parents of the six-year-olds who had successfully listened to the instructions. Next up: BUNTING. IMG_0538

Objective: bunt balls into tires, be that on the fly or if they bounce in. The kid in the blue was so intimidated by this whole situation, he put his helmet back and left, crying.

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OK, so he stuck it out. COME ON, BEN. The bat head’s below the handle. Terrible.

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Better. Still terrible.

IMG_0548 Decent odds the Morneau shirsey kid bunted more balls successfully into the tires than the four of us combined. IMG_0551 As best as I remember, we finished with a three-way tie for first place wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiith one bunt in a tire per person. I don’t remember who got zero, but either way, call the scouts. Next up? Base stealing, and the day’s most epic showdown. IMG_0553 Here is the base stealing area, complete with sample video screens so you can pretend to steal off your favorite pitcher. We waited in line again, this time chuckling at the fact that the only human beings participating in this were ages 10 and lower, and most of them were about five. Not only were we undeterred, Mark proceeded up to the first volunteer and asked if we could reserve three lines simultaneously so he, Jake and I could race each other. You know, because we’re adults. He laughed and said sure and we took our spots. As I am a complete moron, I was not sure when to take off and got a horrid jump which I unsuccessfully tried to make up for with a ridiculous dive upon reaching the mats. Mark’s and Jake’s jump were the opposite, crisp and speedy, and three grown men barreled down felt carpeting and slammed themselves into rubber padded mats, sending them flying. Staff ultimately determined Mark slid in narrowly ahead of Jake, and as I cannot embed video in this blog, here is the glorious footage of what transpired. I remain furious about everything that happened in this video. Pathetic showing. IMG_0605 IMG_0604 IMG_0603 IMG_0606 Final skills challenge was the classic batting cages. I remember literally none of this other than being annoyed we only got five pitches and the helmet squeezing my head so hard I thought I was going to fall asleep. It’s possible all adrenaline and machismo had been exhausted at the speed pitch and epic base stealing race; we can’t know. Fortunately for our pathetic old asses, there remained no more physical activity and only two more stops before sitting down and eating food for four hours. WIN. On to the Make Your Own Topps card station! IMG_0561 And here it is in all its glory! Here’s the deal: card is free, 45 minute line, any team’s jersey to dress up in from this wonderful rack of options. Photographer snaps picture, computer jockeys crop it, printer churns out cheap Topps cards. It was literally everything I wanted it to be times a thousand. Having had the benefit of a buddy doing this the day before, this nerd in particular knew the template was the ’65 Topps design, of which Mickey Mantle’s card is near perfection. While everyone had a plan going into the photos, mine was to mimic the Mick. IMG_0562IMG_0563                         Untitled   As you can see, results here are all over the map. We’ve got Jake going serious. We’ve got happy fun times smirkMark. We’ve got Ben attempting humor, which is tough for him you guys, so throw him a bone and chuckle at this when you read it; he could use it. Lastly, I did ok. Bat angle was strong, looking off camera accurate, laptop lady could have zoomed in one more notch. Sadly, I failed at two things: the first was the cool squint/smirk the Mick has on his face (I look like I’m laser-beaming something to death), and the second was having a neck and arms the size of culvert pipes. Oops. IMG_0572 Last stop was the seemingly endless cattle pen of merch. I could have blown four thousand dollars in there, and the guys got some awesome Twin Cities shirts, but I entered on a mission and I exited successful in that mission. Charlie pitching to Schroeder! No more Minneapolis baseball-ey thing has ever existed. IMG_0577

And that was that for Fan Fest! Afterwards, we meandered on over towards Target Field for the Futures Game and the Celebrity Softball contest. Those, and I, will see you in PART TWO! Head on over there! Hope you enjoyed the stupidity!

The Last Ride of Larry Wayne, Part One

I can’t say I know where this is headed, so for those of you that saw your last visit end 15,000 words and two hours later, I won’t blame you for finding the nearest lifeboat.

***

Part One: Hope Springs Eternal in the Happiest Place on Earth
Chipper Jones’ Line: DNP (Did Not Play)

This started with my intent to write about my annual spiritual solo pilgrimage to Champion Stadium, spring home of my beloved Atlanta Braves in the heart of Walt Disney World, and what I saw there, what that trip means to me every March. I planned to write it the day I started this site because I now had a blog and therefore, an inherent obligation to contribute to it, and what better subject than a unique trip to a unique place? Two years ago I shook hands with Phil Niekro. Last year I not only got wonder-prospect Julio Teheran’s autograph but Braves All-Star Martin Prado’s as well. Plus, I got to steal a work SLR and an 80-200 lens and photograph Tommy Hanson pitching on one of the back fields; super cool. So I figured something cool would happen and I could write about it. But then it became something else (and all that happened this year was I got politely yelled at by former Orioles coach Dave Trembley, who I then shot the shit with for a minute. Take what you can get I guess. I did sneak onto the Jumbotron, though. Don’t hate).

The camera can't help but find me.

It became something else when I considered to myself that my childhood hero Chipper Jones may never skip across the third base line chalk again after this season; he’s pretty old by baseball standards and barely keeps coming back each year, so I should do everything in my power to watch him play the game as often as I could while that was still an option. Surely I could chronicle those adventures and discover something profound about Chipper, baseball, childhood idols or myself in the process. I even had a clever name thought up, a tribute to one of the game’s last throwbacks, a Southern cowboy if ever there was one and a legend deserving of a grandiose tale of his trip into the sunset: The Last Ride of Larry Wayne. And if he played in 2013 well, no one reads this blog anyway so I had a feeling not much would come of it.

And then, unexpectedly, I found myself sitting in a large, empty, echoing apartment alone, watching baseball highlights of the miracles of last October late into the morning (thank you, Evan Longoria, Jonathan Papelbon, David Freese. Actually, from Braves everywhere, you’re welcome David Freese). When a very big change takes place in life, if people are anything like me, they doubt the things they do or say or think. And I have to assume people turn to what they know or what has meant a great deal to them in the past, because I certainly did. I watched baseball. I watched baseball when there wasn’t even any baseball to be watching (thanks MLB Network!). And I goofily and existentially thought, why? Kids love baseball because their dads love baseball. My dad cannot stand baseball. Kids love baseball because they live near a ballpark and have that indelible memory of walking up the tunnel and seeing the stadium erupt in front of them. There are no ballparks in southwest Florida (when I was a teenager, an hour and a half journey North suddenly found you at Tropicana Field, home of the Devil Rays! It has various shades of grayish green mismatched carpet, catwalks that interfere with the game and a sting ray petting tank. This is where you will find every fan). And yet I have always loved baseball. I gave up playing tennis as a kid (I was damn good at that!) because it conflicted with baseball season. I have always needed baseball. I have self-medicated by watching The Sandlot an appalling number of times. So, when I really started to think about why this boring, three-hour standing contest is so great, the answer was complicated to think about, but at least it had a ready-made answer; my hero, Chipper Jones, plays baseball. And I could not wait to get to Spring Training this year more than most; I needed the smell of the clay, number 10 standing at third and I needed baseball.

Two weeks ago tomorrow I was standing above the third-base dugout in Champions Stadium feebly holding a baseball I bought at Wal-Mart and a Sharpie marker, surrounded by wide-eyed eight-year-olds and a couple overzealous autograph junkies holding bound catalogs full of what they hoped were a few hurried swirls of ink from being eBay merchandise by the end of the day. I watched my childhood hero surface from the first-base dugout and trot to his usual territory about eight steps away diagonally from the third-base bag. I watched him field grounders and recycle them into Freddie Freeman’s first baseman’s glove like clockwork. I watched him laughingly joke with third base prospect Joe Terdoslavich and our twin baby shortstop options, Tyler Pastornicky and Andrelton Simmons (none of those three men were born when Chipper Jones first came to Walt Disney World for spring training). I watched his customary enormous dip strain the capacity of his lower lip. I watched him casually deposit baseballs 400 feet away onto front office personnel car rooftops from the left side of the plate and I watched him just as casually place them 400 feet away onto the left field berm from the right side. I watched him accomplish all these feats laughing, making them look easier than I ever could by miles. This is how it has always been since I was a kid and how it should always be, damn it. It was wonderful and it was reassuring and I was grateful. I probably smiled a big, idiotic smile that made those eight-year-olds assume something was wrong with me.

And then batting practice ended and I watched my hero Chipper Jones descend into the tunnel, waving to the pleading fans. A while later I watched him appear on the center-field Jumbotron and I watched the tears issue down his face. In a time of sudden change and an uncertain future I could not have foreseen any number of springs before this one, I watched my hero retire from the game of baseball and take my entire childhood along with him.

Crap. Well, at least that clever blog title sounds a lot smarter now.

***

If there is some deep lesson to be learned about starting a new life somehow, somewhere, while the symbol of my old one slowly fades away over the course of the next 162 games, I don’t know it yet. It seems too close and Chipper didn’t even play that day (he brought out the lineup card to a wild ovation). So I’m going to go North to Braves country in April and see what I find then, cheer as loud as I can. And I’ll follow him over to that historic baseball cathedral the Trop in May and see what I find then too, and he might actually hear me in there. And after that, who knows? A game in the new Miami spaceship sometime this Summer? His actual swan song in my native PNC Park in Pittsburgh? Some unforeseen trip elsewhere across this great country? All would be welcome. Hopefully whatever I have to say after those journeys will be more cohesive than this bloated foolishness.

For now, it is the 2012 Major League Baseball season’s second opening day, and it isn’t even opening day yet; the first games that counted happened days ago in Japan and tonight marks the opening of the lime-green fish tank that is the new Marlins park. But tomorrow is the traditional opening day, when the sun will shine on abused turnstiles and beer vendors alike as it has always been meant to. I sit in that same over-sized, quiet living room which has been made much less depressing by a visit from my parents, moving furniture, opening boxes of books and hanging old and new pieces of art (before we were going on Dane’s definition of art. Now we’re going on the real one!). It is the seventh inning of the first stateside baseball game of the season and Kyle Lohse just lost an opening-day no hit bid to a Jose Reyes single. I could care less about either of these teams, other than a marginal Cardinals rooting interest as the Fish are in the Braves division, and you know what? This is bliss. I need baseball. And when I tried to think on why baseball is so great, it became clearer comparing it to my local nemesis: the NBA.

I live in Orlando. This city is incredibly devoid of character or culture of its own; we steal from the cultures that visit here and outsiders identify us with the Mouse down South, though that is miles outside of Orlando (and reality to be honest). But what we do have is the Orlando Magic, and this is a “basketball town.” When I say that this is a basketball town, what I’m saying is that the only professional athletic team that calls this city home plays basketball, not that the citizens here love it like Cardinals fans make St. Louis a baseball town, like Packers fans make Green Bay a football town, like Red Wing fans make Detroit Hockeytown USA. But living in a “basketball town” is what truly illuminated the things I love the most about the game I love the most.

In basketball, scoring is easy. It’s not only easy, but it’s expected. It is common. At times, it’s completely unexciting. This is ridiculous. Scoring in sports should be momentous, celebratory, a cause for exultant and unbridled joy (see: international soccer). Scoring should be rare and difficult. It is that on the diamond.

In basketball, the final two minutes of the game are a mockery of everything that has come before it. When the game should be tightening like a vice grip, it is instead decided by free-throw shooting and play-acting fouls. A sporting event should not develop into some idiotic circus, it should always be high drama, raising your blood pressure the longer it goes on. This happens out on the diamond.

Perhaps most importantly is that basketball lacks what I believe makes baseball truly great; history, superheros even, mysticism, gravitas. Go to an NBA game. There are court-side dancers. There are arrogant egos swollen larger than any stadium can contain. Usher music plays during the game. It has all the emotional tension of mowing your lawn. But even in the insufferable Summer doldrums you will find the 7,000 Rays fans in St. Petersburg, on their feet, screaming wildly into the late innings for what would seem like a meaningless game amongst 161 others. Even in terrible blowouts or non-marquee matchups, no hitters may surface, perfect games, batters hitting for the cycle. There is always drama, even if it comes in the quickest, easily missable bursts. There just seems to be more at work during any given baseball game; there are stadiums across the country where patrons will swear the ghosts of the game walk the bases, pace the dugouts or simply watch the game they loved.

Baseball defenders are quick to say the game has decades of statistics and history that foster its mysticism, the ability to compare to Honus Wagner to Troy Tulowitzki far easier than Jim Brown to Arian Foster or Oscar Robertson to Tim Duncan. Yet it’s more than that. Baseball has heirlooms that live through generations, magic talismans on display every night for 80 years, like change-up grips taught by Josh Gibson to Tug McGraw, shown again to Orel Hershiser, thrown now by Clayton Kershaw. Randy Johnson’s slider. Jonny Venters’ sinker, each something more magical than the next. There are superstitious lunacies and rituals that seem larger than the game and also synonymous with it; Wade Boggs’ fried chicken, batting helmets slathered in pine tar so thoroughly you’re no longer sure what team is batting. Where else can you get the fun, the anguish, the fan community engendered by the curses of the Bambino, the Black Sox or the Billy Goat (I will always maintain my theory that Red Sox fans were happier before 2004)? Where else will you find a construction worker rumored to have buried a David Ortiz jersey in the foundations of new Yankee Stadium and a team owner that would spend millions to dig it up? Where else can you find little kids in their backyards imitating their heroes, be it Jeff Bagwell’s stance or Tom Glavine’s mechanics?

Baseball even has everything that makes the other professional sports beloved; hits (ask Pete Rose), speed and athleticism (ask Ricky Henderson), over-sized personalities (ask Nyjer Morgan, aka T-Plush), collisions (ask Ray Fosse), fights (ask Don Zimmer) and acrobatics (well, just watch this. And he’s almost 40). Even the stadiums are characters unto themselves. Some are new-age spaceships (Miami), some are ancient monoliths taking slow, rattling breaths (Oakland). Some have city icons cooking famous barbecue in right field (Baltimore), some have mascots flying down slides into vats of beer (Milwaukee). Some are new-school retro (Pittsburgh, Washington, New York) and some are just plain old-school, essentially a religious experience just to descend their steps towards the grass (Wrigley, Fenway, Dodger Stadium). Football fields, basketball stadiums and hockey arenas have all the fun character of my cable bill.

I think I just make baseball out to be more than it actually is, see its profundity when maybe I’m just horribly bias. The white leather and its 108 red stitches itself is like a precious gem, the sports version of the Pink Panther. The defense sends its finest dark wizard to spin his magic, make the ball dance to his dominion against the laws of common sense and gravity, protect it from ever contacting the offense’s marauding maple weapons or possibly shatter them entirely. Behind him stand his eight bodyguards, charged with keeping that precious diamond inside of their immaculately manicured green an orange one. Meanwhile, up, striding to the plate are mythic gods, the hands of Evan Longoria, the stature of Mike Giancarlo Stanton, the preternatural gift given to Albert Pujols to send baseballs flying into the ether. And is there a greater feeling than to see exactly that? To watch Josh Hamilton do what god put him on this planet to do, send twenty-eight baseballs careening into parts of Yankee Stadium previously thought untouchable by mortal man, places surely only the Babe could have reached? Towering home runs, some of which simply never come down as far as the fans can see, are the ultimate testament to baseball’s most wonderful feature: it is limitless. Nolan Ryan once shocked the world by throwing a registered pitch 100 miles per hour. And then Justin Verlander started throwing ’em that fast into the ninth inning. And then Aroldis Chapman threw one 105. Home runs leave the very playing field itself. Think about that. When else does a game routinely exceed its own boundaries to the delight of the very fans the game has shifted into the hands of? While they were and are reprehensible cheaters, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa once saved the game as we know it, sending baseballs into apartment complexes across Waveland Avenue and onto the Massachusetts Turnpike in the summer of 1998. Every pitch and every at bat is a war of unknown attrition. Games can last for days until they are resolved on the field, and they have.

I’d wager I could ramble on for another 2500 words constituted entirely of easily refutable and completely contradictory things I love about the game, but perhaps one of its greater qualities is its fickle nature. The Cardinals just spoiled the Marlins’ first game in their new ballpark, but they’ll both play 161 more games because on any given night, the Royals can beat the Yankees. The Pirates can beat the Phillies. The Rays can come back from 11 games behind in September and 7 runs down in game 162 and end up in the playoffs. Anything can happen and always does, and always will. Records are set and are broken every day to our amazement. Our heroes for years bring us to our feet with screams in our lungs and later, respectful tears in our eyes as they leave us behind. But life goes on just the same. Baseball always arrives, just as Winter has come and gone, and baseball will always be the same. Come what may in life there will always be the game, just when you need it the most. Every spring the litany of baseball writers love to announce that for every team or player, no matter what has happened or what uncertainties their future may hold, hope springs eternal.

I couldn’t be happier to agree with them.

And if Chipper should hit a few home runs that disappear into the night skies over these next few months, I won’t complain.

"Tomorrow, the sun will rise..."