Grand Tour VII, Part One: Of Halos and Domes

Tropicana Field has a wide open feeling. (via Bryce Edwards)

For the last seven years, my reliable signpost for the return of baseball hasn’t been pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training, or the first game of the exhibition season. It has been riffling through team schedules, major-league and increasingly minor-league, working to link together a string of days and games for my traveling companion*, Paul Golba, and myself. It has been preparing my next version of what, way back in 2013, I named The Grand Tour.

* I.e., the guy who drives.

I ended last year’s tour with doubts about whether the tradition would continue. Those doubts departed when I heard the Miami Marlins were getting rid of their retina-abusing, brain-warping home run sculpture. Once I knew I could visit Marlins Park without that risk to my sanity, I made my decision. The Grand Tour finally would swing down to Florida.

We couldn’t make the tour just for two major league games, so we needed connections. A return visit to SunTrust Park in the Atlanta area excited neither of us, which is a concise review of our trip there last year. Our choices ended up being Charleston, South Carolina for the Low-A RiverDogs, Orlando, Florida (or nearby) for the High-A Florida Fire Frogs, and Augusta, Georgia (or nearby) for the Low-A GreenJackets. We’d close the trip with another Low-A game in Asheville, North Carolina, my home base, giving us six games in seven days.

How the tour didn’t actually meet that goal is part of the story, indeed part of the theme of the tour this year. Whenever it’s possible, I like to find a theme running through these trips, though it’s something that needs to emerge organically and not be forced. This year, the theme is rather simple: Who cares?

That is not a statement of indifference, not by me at least. It is an honest question about which locales are passionate about their teams and which aren’t; about which teams make you feel their commitment to the game and which don’t. We encountered several different mixtures of both scales in the games we went to this year. Our passion and commitment remained high, and we were rewarded for it.

We also were rewarded by Paul’s scouting of interesting places to eat at various stops on the tour. It’s not baseball, so there won’t be much said about it. I’ll merely state that if you’re ever in the mood for duck in Charleston, Paul can recommend the Tattooed Moose without reservations (in both senses), and if you’re ever on St. Simons Island in Georgia, the Blackwater Grill does a knockout shrimp and grits.

Now that I can write those meals off as business expenses (I’m kidding, though I was slightly tempted), it’s past time I talked about some baseball.

Sunday, June 9, 2019 – Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park
Turistas de Asheville a Perros Santos de Charleston

Tourists in Charleston, behind and in front of the camera.

Tourists in Charleston, behind and in front of the camera.

Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park—”the Joe”—is named after Charleston’s former mayor of 40 years who left office just in 2016. To give you an idea of his popularity, there’s a stand where you can pose your head in a photo of someone carrying Mayor Riley in his arms. The carrier, whose head yours replaces, is Bill Murray. People there would rather be seen carrying around the ex-mayor than be seen cradled in the arms of Bill Murray, and I still cannot fully digest that fact.

One usually sees the Charleston RiverDogs playing at this park, but we arrived at an unusual time. This was a Copa de la Diversión day for the team. They were participating in the minors-wide Hispanic outreach program that had nearly half the teams in the minors taking on a Hispanic identity for several games in the year.

The standard logo of a gruff yellow dog chomping through a bat was dismissed. In its place was a dog’s head in full Dia de los Muertos skull makeup, with a palmetto (state tree of South Carolina) on the forehead and a halo floating above to satisfy the Holy Dogs name. The team’s two costumed mascot dogs, Charlie and Chelsea, weren’t done up as skulls, but they were wearing the same aquamarine jerseys with yellow sleeves the ballplayers had as Perros Santos. The team certainly had committed to the Copa in the way of clothing.

This seems to have been the point. Sales of the specialty jerseys and caps were brisk judging by the numbers of both I saw in the stands. This would be a natural result of taking advantage of the opportunity offered, but the well-trained cynic in me had to ask to what extent that was the whole point of offering the opportunity.

My hometown Asheville Tourists (present as the day’s visitors) do their own identity-changing promotions, along lines both commercial (Beer City Tourists) and social/political (Asheville Hippies). It’s so clearly a maneuver to expand a near-saturated clothing market as not to need much comment. Charleston does likewise, even outside Copa de la Diversión. They have a day as the Charleston Rainbows in August—I saw a cap with the logo two full months ahead of the day—and in the same month they’re doing a Dumb and Dumber promotion, with players dressed up as the Mutt Cutts van. I swear I am not making this up.

Beating the Odds: When Teams Outperform Their Projections
When it comes to outperforming projections, some teams are better than others.

Five days later, we’d be in (or near) Augusta for a GreenJackets game. I would learn they were planning to play two games in August as the Augusta Pimento Cheese. I repeat: Pimento Cheese. This is nonsense not even Lewis Carroll could have dreamed up, in a chase for every possible souvenir dollar. Not to say minor-league teams don’t have to hustle to make ends meet (see below), but one wishes there were limits. It’s desperation like this that makes the mercenary aspects of Copa de la Diversión seem almost charmingly quaint.

Success of the Copa promotion in cultural terms was a lot more debatable. Charleston’s Hispanic population hovers around three percent, so they’re drawing water from a shallow well. I scanned the stands for evidence of high Hispanic attendance, in vain. One group briefly looked promising, but the Canadian flag on one member’s cap persuaded me I was in error.

The team did make its efforts. P.A. announcements at the game were bilingual—at least those I managed to hear. The system did badly reaching our seats, en español o en ingles. The announcer also had pronunciation problems, most prominently with names of visiting players. Daniel Montaño’s tilde got lost in the mail, and Grant Lavigne’s surname was given as “la-vine” rather than “la-veen.” Making half the announcements in a language I don’t readily understand ended up being redundant.

Copa de la Diversión was the expected wrinkle to the game. I found a second shortly before the first pitch, when the two umpires walked onto the field…and I spied the ponytail falling from the cap of one of them. Jennifer Pawol had home plate that day, and she is the first woman I have ever seen umpiring a professional game. (There have been just seven in the affiliated minors, and Pawol is one of only two active.) My attention to the game gained some focus. I could be watching a prelude to history, the first woman to make the major-league umpiring ranks. (No doubt Pawol hopes so, though the odds facing any umpire at this level are steep.)

The game itself was marked by some strange plays and bad baserunning decisions. Twice runners erased themselves with bad breaks for second, one on a steal, the other on a busted bunt-and-run. Twice runners on third broke for home on grounders to second base and got thrown out at the plate. One squeeze bunt produced a high throw to first, a jump off the bag, and the batter-runner colliding with the mid-air first baseman—and getting called out. Another runner got cut down at home trying to score from second on a single into left, but that seemed almost mundane in comparison.

The biggest controversy came in the sixth. Asheville had put one across to tie the game, 2-2, and had the bases loaded with one out. Danny Edgeworth hit a ball into the dirt around home, near the now-effaced third-base line. Catcher Eduardo Navas grabbed the ball, touched home, and threw to first for a rally-killing double play. The local television broadcasters, audible in the concessions area, thought umpire Pawol’s fair call was debatable. From my perspective on the third-base side—probably as good as their view, though inferior to hers—the ball had stayed fair, and she made a good call.

The call saved Charleston only temporarily, as Asheville got the go-ahead run in the seventh. We got up to stretch and sing—en ingles—and seconds later the torrent began. Everyone ran for cover, though not before my notebook was half-blotted by thick raindrops. (If my recollections seem at all fuzzy, I’m blaming that.) The game looked like a wipeout, Asheville’s rally gone for nought.

The RiverDogs team behind the team had other plans. An employee we met during the rain assured us there had been serious offseason improvement of the field’s drainage. Once the storm passed, the grounds crew, including most of the team’s front office—told you, hustling to make ends meet—got cracking. An hour and a half after the downpour began, we had a time announced for resumption of the game. It was a sterling effort, earning my fullest accolades—especially compared to what we would witness a few days later.

The stands were nearly empty once play resumed, meaning we could slip over to new seats behind home and under an overhang just in case. The PA actually could be understood where we now sat, the announcer’s bilingualism mostly shed by this stage. Below us and to the left, a boy got to handle his dad’s radar gun. Did I just see a scout bring his kid to work?

I didn’t go and ask because I had happened upon someone else connected to the game. It was his fourth straight game at Charleston, watching his child. Not a player, but an umpire. And not her, but the base umpire, Sean Cassidy. It is Sean’s second year as a pro ump, and his father has been following him around the South Atlantic League, whenever other family members haven’t attended themselves.

One easily can imagine a minor-league player having proud, hopeful parents in the stands game after game. One imagines it for a prospective umpire much less, and for fair reasons. Players are the ones we’re supposed to care about in a baseball game, not umpires. If we’re paying attention to the umpires, usually something has gone amiss. (Not always. Remember how I was paying attention to the umpire at home.)

But umpires have their ambitions and pursue them in a manner very similar to the players, working through years of apprenticeship for a long-odds chance at the big time. This is their dream. Having family literally cheering them on as they pursue it is a comfort and a support, perhaps one day a cherished memory as they look back from the heights they’ve attained—or even if they don’t.

That’s how I ended up pulling for both umpires at the game. With any luck, they won’t be in the South Atlantic League for me to watch for much longer.

Charleston missed its comeback chance in the seventh, when a one-out hustle triple led only to the second 4-2 putout of the game. Asheville held on for the 3-2 victory, which at least didn’t disappoint many Charleston fans because most of them had gone home to dry off. That was a pity, really, after the team worked so hard to give them their money’s worth.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019 – Tropicana Field
Oakland A’s at Tampa Bay Rays

Monday was a baseball-free day on our calendar, as we stopped in Orlando for an alternative form of entertainment. Those who have been following the Grand Tours since the beginning may recall that we snuck in a Weird Al Yankovic concert on our first trip, and we did it again this year. Al still doesn’t do any baseball material, though, so he doesn’t get a write-up.

Orlando is a mere two hours’ drive from Tampa Bay, so there was zero stress getting to the area and nearly zero getting to the ballpark. The drive from our hotel to Tropicana Park was just over half an hour, and after one nasty early stretch, traffic was not bad. It seemed pretty easy for something described as the most inaccessible ballpark in the majors.

That last statement needs qualification. It seemed easy for two committed (one might also say obsessed) baseball fans who were used to traveling for several hours at a stretch to attend games. For more casual fans, or potential fans, or fans with tight schedules, I easily can see the long trip to the Trop being a deal-breaker.

The stadium looms in sight from some distance away, there being few large buildings nearby to obscure it. The most interesting external architectural feature is the tilted roof. The sense of having arrived at the ballpark in mid-catastrophe is probably not what the architects at HOK were aiming for. It’s remarkable to consider HOK produced this in 1990, the White Sox’s New Comiskey/U.S. Cellular/Guaranteed Rate the next year, and then inaugurated the Golden Age of ballpark design with Camden Yards in 1992.

What struck me on entering Tropicana Field was how wide-open it felt. With stores and stands ringing very broad concourses, it seemed more like an indoor mall than any other park I’ve visited. It turns out that’s only too accurate: it is a shopping mall, designed as such and open year-round. The rotunda entrance we used was modeled after the one at Ebbets Field, and the team claims the outfield dimensions are a ringer for the Pride of Brooklyn as well. Eight seconds of research exposes this as a thick slice of baloney, not even considering the massively different fence heights.

The wide concourses are still kind of nice, if one ignores their separation from the field. There are old-fashioned tunnels running from the concourses to the seats, and after several years of taking in the modern wave of open architecture at ballparks, I felt the isolation. Here’s the game; here’s the mall; let’s not mix the two up.

(I also could expostulate upon the cashless concession stands—your money is literally no good at the Trop—but that, like the tunnels, would push us further away from the game.)

With time to kill, Paul and I gave a look at the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame. We’ve seen a number of similar displays at (and near) other ballparks over the years. The Reds’ and Yankees’ museums were the best in-stadium setups, with the Babe Ruth Birthplace in Baltimore at a similar level. This was not.

It wasn’t exactly bad—a museum with the original Red Seat Williams hit with a homer that traveled over 500 feet has something going for it—but it was weak. The Williams material, the Hitters Hall, the tacked-on pitchers’ annex, the rank of display cases dedicated to the Negro Leagues, showed a scattershot philosophy. It felt almost like they were throwing in whatever they could to fill the room. Even Don Zimmer gets his own display case. The man was a crusty delight, and the Rays have even retired his number (as a coach), but if you’re using him to eke out a Ted Williams museum, something is not right.

One seat (or three) does not a museum make.

One seat (or three) does not a museum make.

I got the same feeling from the display of Rays franchise highlights, mostly consigned to a poorly populated corridor behind the center field wall. Several pictures from their pennant-winning run in 2008, 11 pictures from that crazy Game 162 night in 2012, and a few other scattered moments made for something almost like a parody. The Rays want to celebrate the past, as other teams do. They just don’t have enough to make it work.

They did play baseball there that day, before a few close friends, Paul, and me. We had great seats, because supply and demand meant the Rays weren’t charging a whole lot for good tickets. They weren’t charging anything for bad tickets: The upper deck, like in Oakland, had been closed.

Speaking of Tropicana Park’s upper reaches, I had an experiment in mind, and it didn’t take long for my chance to come around. The second batter of the game, Matt Chapman, hit a high fly ball. The experiment reached its expected conclusion: I lost the ball in the infamous white ceiling of the Trop. It would not be my only time. No fielders suffered my fate during the game, but it was apparent how some could.

Can you spot the baseball? No, neither could I.

Can you spot the baseball? No, neither could I.

The game itself was reasonably good. Ryne Stanek was the Rays’ opener, the first time I’ve gotten to see that pitching stratagem live. After a rocky start, he fanned Matt Olson and Khris Davis for a scoreless first, his only inning. Tommy Pham homered in the home half to give Tampa Bay the early edge, and a delayed double steal in the fourth made it 2-0.

Oakland chipped one back in the fifth then broke through next inning. With one down, Chapman did not beat out a grounder to short, but Willy Adames’ throw was in the dirt, and first base umpire Sean Barber ruled Ji-Man Choi bobbled it. Replay didn’t show fans evidence of that, but the play was swiftly upheld on challenge, bringing thunderous boos. Olson and Davis, Stanek’s earlier strikeout victims, gave them more to boo with prompt back-to-back homers, making it 4-2 Oakland.

That was the last of any meaningful noise in the stadium (except for rolls of thunder outside in the seventh—domes are good for something) until the bottom of the ninth. A Brandon Lowe leadoff walk seemed doomed to go for nothing, but Adames drove Lowe home with two outs, atoning partially for his bad throw in the sixth. Fans came alive, making the most positive noise I had heard all game. It went for bupkis. Kevin Kiermaier grounded out weakly to first, the Rays lost 4-3, and the stands emptied in near silence.

The team did not announce an attendance figure during the game. I  learned later that they had drawn 11,132 fans. I see why the Rays buried that bad news, but it did them no good. One look around the stands, from the seats or on TV, and it would be obvious how few people were there to watch a home team that began the day leading the American League East.

Tampa Bay baseball is like a bad dream, and I don’t mean this figuratively. As happens in dreams, regular-world logic doesn’t quite apply. Mundane details are off, akin to real life but not really right. You accept what you see, but on a deeper level your dreaming self knows it should be different.

I know baseball in Tampa Bay should be different. Good baseball should draw good crowds, even if the team is tone-deaf about honoring a past it doesn’t have much of. If the franchise has a poor stadium in a poor location, and everyone knows it, the Rays should be able to find a solution. But instead, they produce bizarre escape plans like splitting the home schedule with Montreal.

That’s the explanation for that proposal, right? They’re trapped in dream logic, and they cannot wake up.

Or perhaps they feel an affinity for the old home of the Expos, another nightmare-wracked franchise. Much like the Rays, the Expos suffered adverse economics, dubious ballparks, and some plain lousy luck. Then they got a putative savior, Jeffrey Loria, who instead used them up and threw them away. The split-season scheme mirrors how the Expos spent part of their last two seasons playing in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which was a slap in the face to a city that knew it was losing its team. It is a wrenching cry for help for the Rays even to contemplate duplicating that plan.

Jeffrey Loria has a lot to answer for. This leads us naturally to Miami…or at least it will tomorrow.

References and Resources


A writer for The Hardball Times, Shane has been writing about baseball and science fiction since 1997. His stories have been translated into French, Russian and Japanese, and he was nominated for the 2002 Hugo Award.
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Seeforman
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Seeforman

Great writing, the sense of time and place is outstanding. Got to do my own ( modest ) tour. Can’t wait for Pt. 2.

Paul G.
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Paul G.

As the non-writing partner of the trip, let me add a few comments: The Charleston stadium is located directly next to wetlands that feed the nearby Ashley River. It’s quite pretty. I probably would not have noticed the view if not for the sudden downpour that had us evacuate to somewhere with a roof. I also suspect that the rain combined with the twilight enhanced the viewing experience nicely. The travel to Tropicana Field was not bad at all, but our hotel was in Clearwater so we were already on the “correct” side of Tampa Bay to reach the stadium,… Read more »

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

That “crazy Game 162 night” was in 2011 (the last year before the expanded Wild Cards), not 2012.