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.

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.

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.

Mile high baseball

A review of Coors Field

Sunset at Coors Field

Despite its popularity lately, the practice of sports teams selling the naming rights to their home stadiums isn’t new. Usually there’s a tradeoff: the team gets a not insignificant influx of cash for the next few years which they can spend on players, stadium upgrades, or fancy cars for the executives, and in return the company providing the cash gets to name the stadium. The name is agreed upon beforehand, so there aren’t many outright disasters, but the results range from really good to slightly awkward. One of the best fits is Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, which, apart from sounding a bit braggy, doesn’t sound corporate at all even though it’s named after the Great American Insurance Group. One of the more awkward names, on the other hand, is Progressive Field in Cleveland. Like Great American, its named after an insurance company that’s based locally, but the name obviously doesn’t have the same ring to it, and it doesn’t help that Progressive Field went by Jacobs Field for the first 13 years of its life.

So maybe it’s the fact that Coors Field has never known any other name, or maybe the Coors commercials on TV are that effective at equating the Rocky Mountains with their brand, but the name Coors Field is a perfect fit for the home of the Colorado Rockies, in Denver, CO. I recently had the opportunity to visit Denver to attend Gophercon, and there was no way I was leaving Denver without visiting Coors Field. My review is after the break.

Once more, with feeling

A preview of the 2015 Cleveland Indians

Progressive Field

Going into the 2015 season, the bad news for the Cleveland Indians is that the renovations to their 21-year old ballpark might not be complete by the home opener. It was a historically cold winter in northeast Ohio, and despite the conservative planning and scheduling and the best efforts of the construction crews, the renovations to Progressive Field fell a little behind and it might end up being too much ground to make up this late in the offseason.

The good news is that Progressive Field is really the Tribe’s biggest question mark, which is refreshing because for the Indians that’s pretty abnormal. It seems like most offseasons feature a lot of roster turnover, some low-risk but nominal free agent signings, and at least a couple roster slots that are open for competition if not completely up in the air. But this year, the Indians will enter the season with their 2014 team largely intact: there were no major departures and there was only one major arrival in Brandon Moss. This is a team that won 85 games last season in one of the league’s more competitive divisions, so the fact that it’s mostly the same team returning is a really good thing. In fact, I think this is the best the Indians have looked going into a season in a long time, and with any luck, Tribe fans will be in for a fun summer and maybe even a fun October.

The mecca of cheesesteaks

A review of Citizens Bank Park

Those clouds you see over the stadium have been hanging over the Phillies all season.

Those clouds you see over the stadium have been hanging over the Phillies all season.

Those clouds you see over the stadium have been hanging over the Phillies all season.

Those clouds you see over the stadium have been hanging over the Phillies all season.

In many ways, the style of Citizens Bank Park is a mix of the old and the new. On one hand, the stadium is situated a few miles outside of downtown Philadelphia, adjacent to Lincoln Financial Field and Wells Fargo Arena, and follows the cookie-cutter era strategy of placing the ballparks outside the town itself. That strategy provides easier access and parking, but tends to make the ballpark feel isolated from the city and its unique culture. On the other hand, Citizens Bank Park is actually one of the newer stadiums in the league, built in 2004 in the retro-modern style made popular by Camden Yards. Once you’re inside, the ballpark is immersive enough that it’s pretty easy to forget that you’re actually a few miles outside of Philadelphia.

I made my first visit to Citizens Bank Park this past Tuesday night. It was the 14th park I’ve visited (12th active), and I’ve now visited every park on the eastern seaboard except the two stadiums in Florida. My review of Citizens Bank Park, home of the Philadelphia Phillies, is after the break.

Halfway

The unexpected first half of the 2014 Cleveland Indians

Progressive Field

The Indians opened the unofficial second half of their season last night with a comeback 9-3 win over the Tigers. The Indians started the second half at 47-47, and despite the fact that 47-47 is only .500 and only good enough for third place, I think I’m mostly relieved, if not pleasantly surprised, at what the Indians have managed to make of their season so far. The Tribe aren’t out of it by any means, and if they’re able to reverse some of the problems they’ve had in the first half, we’ll be well on our way to another October run.

Something to build on

A preview of the 2014 Cleveland Indians

The Indians at Progressive Field

This past Christmas, my parents gave me a board game called Ticket to Ride. The game begins with you choosing up to three route cards, which become your mission for the rest of the game: it becomes your job to build a network of railroads across the United States that fulfill each of your route cards. You can only build track between certain cities, and your opponents may be competing for similar sections of the same route. But at the beginning of the game, everything is wide open and you’re starting from scratch. It’s a little intimidating at first because it’s not clear which segments will be in most demand and what your opponents are trying to do. But as the game progresses, you start to build your own little rail network. Most of the time, you’re able to finish your initial route cards and so you take more. But with your new routes, you usually have something to build on. For example, you might have had New York to Los Angeles as an initial route and a new route is Chicago to Boston. If you built your New York-LA route through Chicago, then you only need to connect New York and Boston and you’ve fulfilled another route, and you get the same amount of points even though you had to do very little additional work.

At the end of the game, everyone shows the routes they’ve fulfilled and the ones they failed to fulfill, and they add up their points. And then you declare a winner, and the game just sort of…ends. For me at least, it’s sort of a letdown. Playing again seems exhausting, because you’d have to start all over again, and you feel like you’d rather have kept going with the network of tracks you already have built.

That’s the same feeling I had at the end of the 2013 Cleveland Indians season. The Indians had made an improbable run, capped off by a ridiculous September where they went 21-6 and ended the season on a 10-game win streak. It was enough to capture the top Wild Card seed, and earn home-field advantage for a one-game playoff against the Tampa Bay Rays on October 2nd. But baseball is a tricky game, and even though the Indians were as hot as any team in the league going into that game, they came out flat against the Rays and failed to advance to the division series. Just like that, the season was over. Back to an empty board.

A lot went right for the Indians last year. The 2013 Indians had a Pythagorean win expectation of 0.553, which was only slightly below their actual win percentage (0.568) and means the Indians should only have won 2 less games (although it should be noted that those 2 wins were the difference between a Wild Card spot and not). But they were 10-2 in extra innings, which is somewhat indicative of a strong bullpen but mostly just means they got lucky. And outside of those basic statistics, the Indians got better-than-expected production: from Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, who were were both as good we could have hoped; from the bullpen, who proved to be remarkably durable despite some bad performances by Vinnie Pestano and Chris Perez; and from the offense, with contributions from journeymen like Mark Reynolds and Ryan Raburn as well as the ageless Jason Giambi.

In 2014, the Indians won’t have Jimenez or Kazmir, they won’t have Chris Perez, and they’ll be relying on bounceback years from Vinnie Pestano and Asdrubal Cabrera as well as repeated success from Ryan Raburn and Jason Giambi. After that ridiculously long introduction, I’ll break down the Indians’ chances after the break.