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Indoor baseball

A review of Tropicana Field

Tropicana Field

When my sister and I were growing up, during our summer breaks, we and our more more adventurous babysitters would play a game we invented called indoor baseball. It was a game born out of necessity. When the weather was nice, Katie and I both preferred to spend our days out of the house, with most of my days devoted to baseball in my front yard or a front yard nearby. But northeast Ohio isn’t without its share of rainy summer days, and those days forced Katie and I indoors. Our screen time (TV, computer, etc.) was limited, there are only so many hiding places in the house for hide and seek, and you can only play so many hands of poker with my sister before you get sick of her declaring a royal flush every single time, so indoor baseball was born out of a collective necessity for us to find something to do, and a personal necessity to feed my baseball obsession.

The usual teams were Katie and the babysitter versus me. Our family room was an L-shaped room at the time, and we’d set up the field in the long end of the L with left field being the rest of the L. Everyone had to start on their knees, and whoever was pitching would kneel out near second and roll a Nerf ball towards the plate. The batter would sort of slide the plastic bat towards the ball, and then both the fielders and batter could stand up to field and run the bases. Because the distance between the bases was about eight feet, we moved the force play to second base, so the batter had to make it all the way to second before he was safe. Two fielders was more than enough to cover the whole field adequately, and the batting team got unlimited imaginary baserunners to keep the runs flowing across the plate. We’d usually play a few innings with a run rule in each inning, so the games lasted no longer than a half hour or so.

We both enjoyed indoor baseball, but it goes without saying that I knew this wasn’t real baseball; it was just something to do to pass the time until I could play real baseball again. And I feel like players at the professional level must have a similar feeling, that they must think of real baseball as a sport that’s played outside, on grass, under a sky and whatever might be falling from it. Thankfully, there’s less professional baseball played indoors now than there’s been in more than 40 years: only two teams play on an artificial surface, and only one of those teams plays all its games indoors. That one team is the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, whose home ballpark happened to be the nearest MLB stadium that I haven’t visited yet. I honestly wasn’t that excited about seeing Tropicana Field, because while it’s name is admittedly excellent product placement, it has a reputation for being run-down, bland, and indoors. But the quest is to see all thirty stadiums, not just the good ones, so last weekend I decided to drive down to Tampa to check out Tropicana Field. And despite its reputation and my strong beliefs that baseball is an outdoor sport, I enjoyed Tropicana Field more than I thought I would. My review is after the break.

Where dreams are made

A review of AT&T Park

AT&T Park

Since my first Indians game on August 2, 1995, I’ve attended — by my best estimate — between 75 and 100 MLB games. In all of those games, I’ve never caught a home run, foul ball or any ball from the field of play. Doing so requires good seat placement, some honest effort, and a little luck, and so far I’ve lacked all three. I don’t tend to sit in areas that get a lot of foul balls or home runs, because I prefer the view from around the home plate area, which is either too high for most foul balls or behind the screen that protects fans from foul balls of the more lethal variety. Even when I’ve been in a high-trafficked batted ball area, my luck hasn’t been great. I’ve only been in an best possible position to get a foul ball once: I was sitting in the first row of the mezzanine deck on the first base side at Jacobs Field (now the club seats), and the ball hit the auxiliary scoreboard mounted to the facing of the deck directly in front of and underneath my seat. If I had gone for that one I’d have probably fallen out of the mezzanine deck and into the lower deck, which would have put a serious damper on the rest of the evening.

And even when I’ve had the right luck, I don’t tend to give it a ton of effort. The next best opportunity I had for a ball came when I was sitting with some friends behind the first base dugout at Jacobs Field, and an errant relay throw from the second baseman skipped off the first baseman’s glove and into the stands right next to the left foot of a friend sitting directly to my left. If I really wanted that ball, I could have dove across her and might have beaten the guy sitting in the row behind me to the ball. But my friend would have been (rightly) angry at the fact that the nacho cheese she was eating was now all over my shirt, and I made the split-second decision that going for that ball wasn’t worth it.

But it all came together last Tuesday night at AT&T Park. I had been looking forward to visiting AT&T Park for years, and after visiting the Coliseum two days before I was ready to watch a game at a real baseball stadium. AT&T Park surpassed all of my expectations and more: it’s a beautiful park, in a beautiful city, and the owners seem to recognize exactly what fans want from a baseball experience in San Francisco. And not only that, AT&T Park will forever be the first stadium from which I got a home run ball from the field (kind of). The story and my review are after the break.

Baseball across the Bay

A review of Oakland Coliseum

Oakland Coliseum

Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum — colloquially known just as the Coliseum — is the home of the Oakland Athletics, and as of this writing is the only stadium that professional teams in two different sports call home. The stadium opened in 1966 for Raiders football, during the height of the cookie-cutter multi-sport stadium era, and two years later the A’s started playing baseball there too. In the fifty years since, the vast majority of baseball teams have replaced their mixed-use facilities with a baseball-only stadium, or at least something more suited for baseball. Even most football teams have moved on, deciding that the lack of luxury amenities in these older stadiums were costing them money.

But for a myriad of reasons, the Raiders and the A’s soldier on in Oakland. For the Raiders, there’s a glimmer of hope that they’ll move back to Los Angeles. But the A’s remain stuck in the Coliseum, which is the fifth oldest active MLB stadium, has notable sewage problems, and holds an undesirable reputation as one of the worst ballparks in baseball.

Needless to say, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to my trip to Oakland Coliseum. But seeing as it’s not going anywhere anytime soon, and I was going to be in the Bay area anyway, it seemed prudent to get the Coliseum visit out of the way. My review is after the break.

Let’s glow

A review of Spirit Communications Park

Spirit Communications Park

Three months before I moved to Columbia, I was finishing up my senior year of college and had a full-time job offer at the company I had been interning at for the past couple years in downtown Cleveland. At the time I was ready to be done with college, to be sure, but I was also perfectly happy to stay in Cleveland. Most of my college friends were staying around the area after graduation, and I was looking forward to moving to one of the up-and-coming neighborhoods near downtown. One of the apartments I toured would have been a five minute walk to work, and by extension, a six minute walk to Progressive Field, because my building was right next door to the ballpark. I figured during the summer I’d be going to at least a couple games a week after work after finding a quick dinner from one of the nearby restaurants, all without ever having to start my car.

It was a pretty good plan. But as it often does, reality intervened, this time in the form of a global economic crisis and my job in Cleveland was no longer available. Fortunately I didn’t have to look around long before I found LoudDoor, in Columbia, SC, and in June 2009 — how in the world has it been that long? — I moved down here. It’s been apparent to me in all but my very lowest times in Columbia that this is where I’m supposed to be, and for the most part it’s been enjoyable as well. But it’s hard being an Indians fan down here. It goes without saying that the Indians aren’t on local TV here, nor have the Indians got much national attention in the last seven years. To make matters worse: not only are most people in the area Braves fans, there’s not a major league team within 200 miles of Columbia, so it’s not like I can just catch the Tribe on a road trip. Even more unfortunately, Columbia’s only baseball team (albeit a very successful one) is the University of South Carolina Gamecocks, and their season, in a best-case scenario, is over by July.

But last Thursday night, the Columbia Fireflies, a single-A affiliate of the Mets, made their debut in Columbia at a brand new and beautiful stadium. It was a great night for the Fireflies (they won), a great night for the fans, and a great night for the city. For the first time since I moved here, I felt like I was at a real baseball game, and had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t traveling, that I was just 15 minutes from my home. And the best part is, it was just one of 70 similar nights coming up this season, and for the next 29 seasons after this. My review of Spirit Communications Park is after the break.

Wait till this year

A preview of the 2016 Cleveland Indians

Progressive Field

If you were to analyze the 2015 Cleveland Indians season, you might as well divide the season into two parts: one part between Opening Day and June 13, 2015, and the second from June 14 through the end of the season. June 14 was the day Francisco Lindor made his Major League debut, and it’s stunning how different a team the Indians were after he made his debut. The biggest change was the defense, which bottomed out in May but got steadily better throughout the year as documented by this Grantland piece. The Indians finished 3rd in the Majors in defensive runs above average, behind only the Royals and the Giants, but fancy sabermetrics aside, the defense just looked better in the second half of the season, thanks primarily to Francisco Lindor at shortstop but also aided by Giovanny Urshela at third and Lonnie Chisenhall in right field.

The Indians pitching staff benefited the most from this dramatic improvement, because while the Indians actually pitched slightly worse in the second half of the season, they allowed less runs. The Indians’ xFIP — a stat designed to measure a pitcher’s performance independent of the defense behind him — ballooned slightly from 3.50 in the first half to 3.66 in the second, but their ERA decreased from 3.80 to 3.53. This is a big deal, because the Indians pitching staff is undoubtedly the team’s biggest strength, and having a defense that improved that much over the course of the season just made it that much stronger.

It seems like the Indians haven’t had a consistent offense since the days of Belle, Ramirez, and Thome, and last year came with its share of frustrations. But after starting slow, Francisco Lindor slashed .310/.353/.482 for the season while slugging 12 home runs. He may regress this year, particularly in the power department, but the fact that he started slow and got better as he got more time in the Majors suggests that the dropoff might not be as severe as other prospects the Indians have brought up. And with Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley hitting well all season, adding Lindor into the mix made the second half a lot more enjoyable to watch, even if the improvements were modest.

All of this added up to a team that was 42-46 before the All Star break, but finished the season at 81-80 (with a Pythagorean win expectation of 84-77) by going 39-34 the rest of the way despite a really young and wildly inexperienced roster. So I’m pretty excited about the 2016 season, because while every season comes with its share of unexpected twists and turns, the Indians are retaining most of their improved defense and just about all of their excellent pitching, meaning that we should expect the 2016 Indians to resemble the second half of 2015 more than the first half of 2015. My preview of the 2016 baseball season is after the break.

To the moon

The best movies of 2015

"Inside Out", Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar Animation Studios.

“Inside Out”, Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar Animation Studios.

"Inside Out", Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar Animation Studios.

“Inside Out”, Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar Animation Studios.

2015 was a year of widely anticipated movies and sequels. But whether it was the Hunger Games saga wrapping up, Mad Max getting a long-awaited sequel, or even Avengers: Age of Ultron, nothing could match the excitement and the hype for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And while some of the sequels were good (and some were even great), most of my favorite movies this year were originals. So without further ado (and no spoilers), here are my top five movies of the year.

You are my witnesses

Lynsey Addario, New York Times.

Lynsey Addario, New York Times.

Lynsey Addario, New York Times.

Lynsey Addario, New York Times.

This past September I had a chance to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, one of the Smithsonian museums near the National Mall in Washington, DC. From the subject matter you can pretty much guess it’s not going to be a particularly light trip, but it’s an intense, moving experience for all who visit, and I’m sure even more so for people who are more directly affected by the Holocaust than me.

The museum is laid out linearly: you enter through the atrium, take an elevator up to the top floor, then slowly and chronologically work your way down through history before finishing back in the atrium. Visiting that afternoon in September, I took in the atmosphere around me as we made our way into the exhibits. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, and the crowd milling around the security lines outside the building was cheerful, most of them tourists having enjoyed a pleasant day so far in Washington, DC. As we made our way inside, it got a little quieter, but mostly because people were simply admiring the beautiful architecture of the atrium and trying to get their bearings and figuring out where to get started. But as we stepped into the elevator to go up to the top floor, the atmosphere changed. It seemed like everyone was more nervous, almost afraid of what we were about to walk into. And as we stepped out of the elevator, everyone went silent.

One step ahead

A review of Steve Jobs

"Steve Jobs", Universal Pictures.

“Steve Jobs”, Universal Pictures.

"Steve Jobs", Universal Pictures.

“Steve Jobs”, Universal Pictures.

Steve Jobs has had a bit of a troubled history. Soon after releasing the universally acclaimed The Social Network, Sony clearly thought it had a good thing going and immediately hired Aaron Sorkin to write another movie about another mercurial Silicon Valley founder. The timing was right: Steve Jobs had never been more famous, had never been more prolific, and it seemed like the entire US population used at least one device that he invented. But soon after Sorkin’s script was finished, problems started cropping up. Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale were both tabbed as early favorites to play Jobs, but both dropped out, along with director David Fincher. Current and former Apple executives attacked the movie before it even came out, along with Jobs’ widow Laurene Powell, and for a while Steve Jobs seemed like the third rail of Hollywood. Undoubtedly unnerved, Sony itself dropped Jobs too, and the movie was left in the less certain hands of Michael Fassbender, Danny Boyle, and Universal Pictures.

Of course, it was still Sorkin’s script, so despite all of this turmoil there was still a pretty good chance that Steve Jobs was going to be pretty good. I got a chance to see it on Friday night, and while it’s not the first movie about Steve Jobs, or the most conventional, it’s certainly the best. Michael Fassbender is convincing as Jobs, the supporting cast is strong, and it’s probably the best writing Sorkin has done since The Social Network. My review of Steve Jobs, with possible minor spoilers, is after the break.

Once more, into the cold

A review of Bridge of Spies

"Bridge of Spies", DreamWorks Studios

“Bridge of Spies”, DreamWorks Studios

"Bridge of Spies", DreamWorks Studios

“Bridge of Spies”, DreamWorks Studios

I’ve had Bridge of Spies on my radar since late 2012. Shortly after watching Lincoln, I checked Steven Spielberg’s IMDb page to see what he was working on next, which listed as his next project was “Untitled Cold War Thriller”. I was sold immediately: any movie directed by Spielberg, particularly the historical movies he’s taken to doing these last few years, has a really good chance of being good, and the Cold War is one of my favorite periods of history. And as the details filled in, I became more and more intrigued and knew I was going to have to see this movie as soon as it came out. Finally, on Friday night, I saw it. Bridge of Spies isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s darn close, and it certainly lived up to the hype I had built up for myself over these last few years. My review, with possible minor spoilers, is after the break.

Progressive Field: Renovated

Progressive Field, 2015

A couple years ago, the Atlanta Braves announced a plan to build a new stadium, abandoning Turner Field before the Braves had even been there twenty years. The move has generated its fair share of controversy and discussion: some don’t like that the Braves are moving out of Atlanta proper and into a more upscale suburban area, and many point out that the stadium — SunTrust Park — will be mostly paid for by Cobb County, which surely has better things to spend its money on. I had just visited Turner Field for the first time a few months before the announcement, and at the time I noted that “I had the feeling that in the 18 years of the stadium’s existence, the owners have taken care to keep it up to date,” and if you asked me what baseball teams needed new stadiums, Atlanta would have been prioritized at best halfway down the list.

Cleveland is a different market than Atlanta, and Atlanta’s situation is different because of its relationship with Disney, but a year later, the Indians’ announcement that they were doubling down on Progressive Field stood in stark contrast to Atlanta’s plan. Progressive Field has undergone several renovations in the past — the most recent major renovation was in 2004 and brought a new Jumbotron and auxiliary scoreboards — but the proposed improvements promised to be the biggest by far. To me, Progressive Field has never really felt outdated, even though it’s now older than all but 11 active MLB stadiums, but I was intrigued and impressed by the scope of the improvements the Indians were making. And while it took me a while, I finally got a chance to check out the (almost) final product. My impressions are after the break.