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Monday, June 29, 2015

What Makes a Ballpark Great?

In my continuing efforts to visit every Major League ballpark in my lifetime, my husband and I traveled north to Boston to catch a game at the legendary and iconic Fenway Park.  We brought along my 11-year-old son, who was rooting for the visiting Orioles but was excited to see Pablo Sandoval and David "Big Papi" Ortiz in person.  It was a beautiful day for baseball, and the ballpark was packed.

So what did I think of Fenway Park?  Well, I had actually been there before, but I was a college student, there was alcohol on the bus, and I honestly don't remember much other than being the only fan rooting for the Minnesota Twins (seeing Kirby Puckett in person was a pretty cool thing for me back then).  So I decided to look at Fenway as if I was visiting it for the first time, and I made some comparisons between this park and my most-visited ballpark:  Nationals Park in Washington, DC.

First of all, Nationals fans expect to get something every time they visit the ball park - either a score card, a rally towel, or any freebie featuring the team's curly "W" logo.  Never mind the fact that most of the fans are federal employees who drive Lexuses or Priuses and can afford to buy Nationals jerseys in both home and away colors - they want something free!  I'm one who tries to plan her visits according to the promotions schedule (remember last year, how I wasn't able to attend "Jayson Werth Garden Gnome Night?"  Those things are going for crazy amounts of money on eBay!)  At Fenway Park, programs with score cards cost money, no one is handing you anything free, and fans are OK with that.  The only promotion on the day we visited was "Nun Day," where many area nuns were given a free ticket to attend the game.  It was nice seeing so many nuns enjoying themselves so much, even though they had crappy seats.

Another difference between the two ballparks is the PA announcers.  Apparently the Red Sox have more than one, and on the day we were there, the dude sounded ancient. Not Vin Scully or Harry Caray ancient, but just old, like a man who has had his prostate removed  But again, the fans are OK with that.  They don't need the Nationals' PA announcer, who sounds like a car commercial and stretches a two-syllable name like "Ramos" into a ten-second line that makes him sound like a Univisión soccer commentator announcing a goal.  Red Sox fans don't need fanciness or flashiness - they don't need the Mount Rushmore presidents racing each other during the fourth inning; they are perfectly happy singing "Sweet Caroline" during the eighth, no need for t-shirt cannons or dancing hottie girls.  Plus Fenway Park has a real live organist who plays a real live organ!  How cool is that?  He even cranked out "Sister Christian" and Mister Mister's "Kyrie" in honor of the nuns!

Red Sox fans also don't need cup holders at their seats.  While there are some plastic seats with cup holders in the rows of seats that are shown on TV, the farther-up rows have wooden seats (mine even had some areas of rot) without cup holders, an occasional obstructed view due to support columns, and no valet service that allows you to text your order and have it brought directly to your seat (yes, Nationals Park offers this service).  Fenway fans are happy to get up, walk around, and buy an overpriced beer ($9, just like at Nats Park), a Fenway Frank, or an Italian sausage.  They don't need the offerings from Ben's Chili Bowl, Nationals Taquería, or the carving station in the luxury boxes.  These fans are die-hard, and they've been happily rooting for their last-place Red Sox all season long despite their park not having leather couches for relaxing (found at Nats Park near one of the ramps that take you to the upper levels).

So who has the better ballpark?  Well, it depends on what you want out a visit.  Do you just want to watch a game with thousands of fans who have followed your team for decades, or do you want to be pampered and doted on?  Do you plan on celebrating every base hit and every run scored during every inning, even if your team is losing (the Orioles beat the Red Sox 8-6 at our game), or do you plan on arriving late, staying for a few innings, and leaving after they stop selling alcohol in the seventh inning?  Going to a baseball game should be an experience - something you can cherish and remember and tell your grandchildren about someday.  So is it better to tell them that an underpaid valet parked your car for you, or would you rather tell your grandkids that your ball park had a lively atmosphere both inside and along the streets surrounding it; that your park has a "green monster" (which I did not like seeing covered in advertisements), and that both Ted Williams and Pedro Martinez played in your park? And the fact that you no longer have to pee in a trough was a bonus for my husband, who grew up using the bathrooms in Cleveland's old Municipal Stadium.  I will always be a Nationals fan, but despite the terrible-quality toilet paper in the bathrooms and lack of natural lighting in their concessions area, Fenway Park is pretty great.  Ask any baseball purist out there, and he/she will agree.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Hello there, fellow baseball fans!  What's happenin'?  Well I'll tell you what's happening - Chris Heston, a 27-year-old rookie pitcher making just his 13th start for the San Francisco Giants, threw a no-hitter last night against the New York Mets at Citi Field.  I tuned in during the ninth innings with two outs, so I was able to enjoy the thrill of the no-hitter without the stress of sitting through a whole game wondering if the no-hitter was going to be broken.  Watching a no-hitter never gets old, and what made it interesting is that Heston actually hit three batters during the game!  Another interesting fact is that the Giants' catcher, Buster Posey, has now caught three no-hitters, which puts him in second place after the Red Sox's Jason Varitek, who caught four in his career.  You know me - I have to take a story and turn it so that the catcher looks good! (And if you read this blog regularly, you already knew that Iván Rodriguez caught 2 no-hitters in his career)

That was the "good."  The "bad" is that the Washington Nationals have lost 9 of their last 11 games.  They're still only half a game out of first place (because no one else in the NL East seems to want to win), but they're playing some terrible baseball.  Bryce Harper and Yunel Escobar seem to be the only ones hitting, 2 of their starting pitchers (Stephen Strasburg and Doug Fister) are on the Disabled List, and their bullpen just plain old sucks (except for their closer, Drew Storen, who hasn't seen much action lately).  It's very disappointing, though the season isn't even half over yet, and us "glass-half-full" people are trying to stay positive.  Luckily the Nationals don't play against the Mets until July, so they have some time to get their stuff together.

And now for the "ugly."  Staying with the Nationals for a minute... Shortstop Ian Desmond has committed FOURTEEN errors this season.  Who DOES that?  Do you think I would still have my job if I made 14 errors in 9 weeks?  And Desmond makes WAY more money than I do!  The thing is, they keep putting him in the lineup every day, and I think he just needs to sit out a game or two - a "mental health day" of sorts.  They have several guys (Escobar, Espinosa, Rendón) who can play shortstop while Desmond clears his head - and they probably wouldn't commit any errors!  It is so frustrating, because he's missing some pretty basic little-league-type plays; maybe he needs to get his eyes checked?  Seriously - how often do baseball players get eye exams?  I hope that's part of a routine physical at the beginning of each season; in Desmond's case, I would send him to an eye doctor right away.

Now in order to not end this blog post on a negative note, let me also mention that the Angels' Albert Pujols tied Mickey Mantle for 16th on the all-time home runs list with number 536.  That's pretty cool - anyone who has the potential to cleanly pass Barry Bonds on the list is a cool dude in my book.  Also hitting a home run on the same day was the Houston Astros' Carlos Correa.  This was his first homer (a long way from Pujol's 536) - but any time a kid makes his Major League debut and hit his first homer in the same week, that's pretty special.  And Correa is Puerto Rican (not a catcher), so there's that coolness factor as well.
So there you have it - highlights (and lowlights) from this week's baseball action so far.  See how I write more often when there's actually stuff about which to write?  Let's hope the next few weeks bring more excitement - I need to have things to write about once school is out and I'm done with work for the summer!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Meet the A's New Righty, er, Lefty

May was a crazy month in our house.  3 of the 4 people who live here had birthdays within 9 days of each other, life revolved around track meets and baseball games (until my son broke his foot, putting an early end to his season), and a trip to Nationals Park on Mother's Day was thrown in there as well.  I've also been busy with a new writing project, but just like those ants that invade your kitchen every spring, I always keep coming back.  This blog is very dear to me, and I am never going away (sorry, folks, you just can't get rid of Mudville Mom!).

It's been an interesting baseball season so far - Bryce Harper is living up to his hype and leading the Majors with 18 home runs (along with Nelson Cruz and Giancarlo Stanton); the Orioles' Matt Wieters came back after a one-year recovery from Tommy John surgery (it's not just pitchers who get that done!); and Alex Rodriguez passed Barry Bonds in the all-time RBI list.  As much as I dislike A-Rod (and you should all know that by now!), I hope he realizes that he can be just as good a player without performance-enhancing drugs.  Same for Nelson Cruz - without the PEDs he's still hitting home runs, so let that be a lesson to you all:  You can be pretty good without PEDs.

OK, so what about this pitcher that the Oakland A's just called up from the minors?  Well, Pat Venditte is a switch-pitcher, something that Major League Baseball hasn't seen in 20 years.  In his first big-league game, he entered the game in the eighth inning against the Boston Red Sox.  He started throwing warm-up pitches with his right hand, then he switched to his left to face a lefty batter who grounded out.  Then Venditte pitched right-handed to the next two batters, one who got a single (Hanley Ramirez) and the other who hit into a double play (Mike Napoli).

Because switch-pitching is such an oddity, the "Venditte Rule" had to be implemented (hopefully the guy will be known for more than just a rule with his name on it - kind of like poor Tommy John, who had a decent pitching career but is mostly known for his surgery.  And don't even mention Lou Gehrig, one of the greatest Yankees ever who had to have ALS named after him after he died from it way before people started foolishly pouring buckets of ice water on themselves for charity).  Anyway, the "Venditte Rule" states that before each at-bat, the pitcher tells the umpire, batter, and baserunners what hand he will throw with for that batter.  If the player at the plate switch hits, he is free to hit from either side.  The pitcher cannot throw with the other arm in the same at-bat.

So we'll have to see how good Venditte ends up being and if he tends to favor one arm over the other.  One positive note is that if he injures one arm, he still has the other one that he can use (Remember Jim Abbott, the one-handed pitcher back in the 90s who went from college ball straight to the Majors after pitching in the 1988 olympics?  It can be done!).  Let's keep an eye on Pat Venditte and see how he does - I definitely find this guy interesting.

In other baseball news, the All-Star voting is well under way.  I plan to submit my ballot as soon as school is over, when I can sit down and analyze all the players without any work-related interruptions.  I usually vote earlier in the season, and then someone I voted for ends up in a slump or with an injury, so I'm going to wait a little this year.  I know that the Giants' Buster Posey and the Cardinals' Yadier Molina are in a dead heat for the starting catcher position, and I'm not sure if I'll go strictly Puerto Rican on that one or if I will give my sentimental vote to cutie-patootie Posey.  I also have to decide if I should vote for Bryce Harper because he's having a great season, or give my vote to Nick Markakis of the Braves, because he's not an ass like Harper is (and my step-daughter took care of Markakis's dog when she worked in an animal emergency room).  Luckily we get three votes for the outfield, so I may vote for both.

So until I cast my vote in a couple of weeks, enjoy the nice weather (it finally stopped raining here in the mid-Atlantic), catch some games on TV or in person, and feel free to go to www.mlb.com and cast your own vote for this year's All-Stars.   Maybe next year we'll see Pat Venditte on the All-Star team.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

If You Have Nothing Nice to Say...

You know the saying:  "If you have nothing nice to say, don't say anything at all."  So I'm going to try and write today's post with a positive tone, not pointing out how my Washington Nationals are 2-5 with shortstop Ian Desmond committing 5 errors in his first seven games.  Nope.  Not gonna say anything about the Nationals' lack of offense and Little League-quality defense; instead, I am only going to focus on the positive aspects of this year's Major League baseball season so far.

For starters, my husband and I had a great time at Nationals Park on Opening Day, with beautiful weather, a great atmosphere, and a flyover (I won't mention the $9 beer, because that's not a positive thing to point out).  I may not be the most patriotic person in this country, but flyovers are always cool, especially when there's an enormous American flag taking up the entire outfield and there are several dozen sailors in uniform making the giant flag undulate.  Pretty majestic way to kick off the baseball season (this is where I'm not going to mention the fat guy with the bad cologne who sat next to me and didn't know a thing about baseball and had to have the lady sitting on the other side of him explain everything).  It was also exciting to go into the sixth inning without Nationals' starter, Max Scherzer, giving up a hit - I got all nervous thinking I was going to witness a no-hitter in person!  While the no-hitter was broken up in the same inning, it was still fun to think that I still have many more ball games to go to in my life, and someday I might even witness a no-hitter.

As for the other teams in the league, the Kansas City Royals are starting off on a tear at 7-0, and the Detroit Tigers are kicking butt despite placing ace pitcher Justiin Verlander on the Disabled List.  The Atlanta Braves traded away their closer, Craig Kimbrell, to San Diego, but are still atop the NL East with Jason Grilli as their new closer.  And how about that Billy Hamilton, who already has 7 stolen bases for the Cincinnati Reds?  As far as home runs, the Dodgers' Adrián González is leading the Majors with 5, followed by former Oriole Nelson Cruz with 4 for the Seattle Mariners.

Hmmm... what other nice things can I say?  Well, there's the return of Mets hottie Matt Harvey, who missed the 2014 season after having Tommy John surgery.  He's back in pre-surgery form, as is the Yankees' Masahiro Tanaka.  Both of these pitchers will be closely monitored and have innings limits, as will the Marlins' José Fernández when he returns to the mound in a few weeks.  Also back after surgery is Jayson Werth, who is moving from right field to left because he's just getting too old to handle that side of the outfield.  No, that's not me being mean - just stating the obvious.

So there you have it - my analysis of the first week of the baseball season without any snarky comments or sarcasms.  I held off on saying I could drive a car through the gap in Commissioner Manfred's front teeth; I neglected predicting that Andrew McCutchen is going to suck this year because he had his dreadlocks cut off; and I certainly didn't mention how awful the new Jumbo-Tron looks in Wrigley Field.  See?  I can be nice! But I can't promise I'll stay this way - there is still a long season ahead of us, I have at least 4 more games to attend, and I haven't even mentioned Alex Rodrguez.  Stay tuned, my friends! :-)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

WHO is Pitching on Opening Day???!

Beware, Mudville Mom readers – I am in a bad mood.  I am usually a sunny disposition-type of person, but today I’m not, mainly because I got to work early for a meeting that ended up being canceled and no one told me.  But that’s neither here nor there – I was in a bad mood to begin with, since Max Scherzer was announced as the starting pitchers for the Washington Nationals on opening day this year.  I know; it's only baseball and I should not let baseball matters get me in a bad mood.  I'm trying to work on that.

So what’s the big deal – it’s only the first game out of 162 – why does it really matter who pitches on opening day?  Well first of all, I paid a pretty penny to be at Nationals Park on opening day, so in a way I’m glad they didn’t select Stephen Strasburg to pitch the first game of the season (yawn!).  However, I thought Jordan Zimmermann was a shoo-in for the position, since he’s the best pitcher in the Nationals’ rotation (in my opinion, and as you all know, I have lots of opinions!).

Yes, Max Scherzer signed a gazillion-dollar contract with the Nats this off-season.  Yes, he won the Cy Young award in 2013 when he was with the Detroit Tigers. Yes, Scherzer has a lifetime record of 91-50 with a 3.58 ERA – he’s no slacker.  But Jordan Zimmermann has been the quiet voice of the Nationals’ pitching staff for the past few years, recovering from Tommy John surgery in 2009 and compiling a respectable 57-40 record with an ERA of 3.24 (slightly lower than Scherzer’s).  He pitched a no-hitter in the Nationals’ last game of the regular 2014 season, and pitched 9 2/3 innings in game 2 of the NLDS (which he should have been allowed to complete – I’m still bitter about that one!).  What better way to start what promises to be a successful season for the Nationals than by starting their workhorse on the mound?  He may not even be around to do so next year, since his contract is up at the end of this season.

Jordan Zimmermann is not flashy.  He was not a #1 draft pick like Stephen Strasburg or Bryce Harper.  He is not known for driving fast cars, ranting tweets, or clubhouse antics.  Zimmermann is a quiet and shy midwestern guy who works his ass off and can be counted on every fifth day for a good quality start.  He never complains (even when he gets no run support), and is the most dependable pitcher the Nationals have.  Yes, Scherzer makes for bigger hype ESPN-wise, but true Nationals fans would rather see a familiar face on the mound than some new guy who still needs to prove himself in the National League.  I’m still going to go to the opening day game (since I paid an arm and a leg for good seats), and I’m going to hope that Scherzer doesn’t disappoint, but a part of me is going to wish that I was there watching Zimmermann pitch instead of the new guy.

You know what else disappoints me about opening day?  The ceremonial first pitch will be thrown by the new Commissioner of baseball, Rob Manfred.  Nothing against the guy (even though he took a job that was clearly meant for me!), but I think the first pitch in our nation’s capital should be thrown by the President of the United States.  Regardless of your political views, you have to admit it’s pretty cool to watch the POTUS throw out a first pitch.  I was there in 2012 when Barack Obama threw a terrible first pitch, but that’s probably the closest I’ll ever be to a US President, so I thought it was cool.  It’s no secret that Obama is not a baseball fan, but just like pardoning a turkey at Thanksgiving and having to put up with John Kerry, there are certain things a President must do that he doesn’t like.  Throwing out a first pitch on opening day should be one of them, and it’s not as exhausting as putting up with the Secretary of State (I'll have to share my personal  Kerry story with you all at some other time).  Heck, I'd even take crazy Joe Biden - he would at least be entertaining!


OK, enough ranting for now.  It’s time for me to embrace this Scherzer guy, try to get an updated list of Puerto Rican players in the Majors this year,  and get my curly “W” jersey out of the bowels of my closet in preparation for opening day just 12 days away.  Let’s hope for a great baseball season – there sure has been a lot of hype to live up to, my friends!

Friday, March 6, 2015

To Watch, or Not to Watch?

We may have a fresh coat of snow on the ground here in Frederick, Maryland (9 inches, to be exact), but in Florida and Arizona, Major League Baseball's Spring Training is in full swing (pun intended!).  I sat by the warm fire in my living room fireplace in my fleece, velour, and fuzzy socks watching the Dodgers and White Sox yesterday, where the crowd was all in tank tops and shorts.  Oh to be in a warm climate enjoying ballpark hot dogs and watching the badass Clayton Kershaw pitch two shutout innings!

Actually, I should not be allowed to watch any Spring Training games at all.  They just give me anxiety and make me want the real season to start tomorrow.  I'm too damn competitive for these "pretend" games that don't count - why did Max Scherzer allow a home run in the second inning of the Nationals' game against the Mets?  That's inexcusable!  The Nationals paid seven gazillion dollars for him; he needs to be perfect!  Why didn't any of the Nationals' regulars get any hits in today's 5-4 victory?   Aren't they supposed to be the best lineup in baseball?  I don't think I can take it this month - they need to start playing for real right now (never mind the fact that there are three feet of snow in Fenway Park)!

Spring Training is a time for previously-injured players to get back into the swing of things (there's that pun again!), like the Orioles' Manny Machado and Matt Weiters, and for veterans like Ryan Zimmerman to get used to playing new positions (he's making the move from third base to first).  But they also have regular nine-inning games, so how can they expect us to not get excited when we've spent the last four months wondering if Peyton Manning is going to retire and trying to figure out if that dress on the Internet is blue and black or white and gold?  We are ready for some real excitement!

Instead we need to stop, take a step back, and chill just a little,  hard as it may be. We need to let the baseball players get into their routines,  practice their batting stances, and get their uniforms dirty. We've waited this long, so we can wait a few more weeks for the regular season to start, right?  I guess.  Players still need to be cut, umpires need to brush up on their skills, and groundskeepers have to get the ballparks ready for opening day a month away.  And some of us have big decisions to make:  Do we get tickets to "Jayson Werth Chia Pet Night," or "Anthony Rendón Garden Gnome Night?"  So let me try to practice what I preach and not take Spring Training so seriously - something very hard for a competitive Puerto Rican like me to do!  This is when I take a deep cleansing breath, go outside to shovel some snow, and bake some cookies... while taking a peek at MLB Network coverage of Spring Training.  Sorry; I just can't resist!

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Groundhog Days of Winter

In just a few days, Major League pitchers and catchers will be starting to report to their team's spring training camps in Arizona and Florida, despite the minus-zero wind chills here in Maryland and the seven feet of snow in New England.  The first spring training game is just two weeks away, which is beyond exciting for baseball nerds like myself.  I did keep my baseball feet wet during the off-season though, going with my husband and son to NatsFest in December and attending the annual meeting of our local SABR chapter just 2 weeks ago.

NatsFest, which was held in the DC convention center, was full of Nationals players available for photo ops.  We met manager Matt Williams and relief pitcher Drew Storen, as well as TV and radio personalities.  The rich people were able to get autographs from several players while the rest of us watched a Q&A with some of the players.  It was a nice event, though I would have liked more free stuff (don't give us a big plastic bag when we get there and not give us free stuff to put in it!  Haven't you ever been to a fitness expo where the Bic pens and the lanyards are free for the taking?).

The SABR conference was a completely different experience.  Members of the Society for American Baseball Research are (believe it or not!) nerdier than I am.  These people can rattle off statistics that the normal person would never consider to be a statistic.  Did you know that Tony LaRussa managed a total of 647 players?  No, I didn't either.  How about the fact that on two occasions, a team scored 13 runs with all RBIs coming from home runs (the Yankees and the Reds)?  Nope, I didn't know that either.  Also interesting to note was that at a game in April of last year, every Orioles starter scored a run.  Yep, that's what these people do all day - try to out-do each other with interesting but unusual statistics.  If these people used their nerdiness for good, we would have a cure for cancer, vision loss in humans could be restored, and colonoscopy preparation wouldn't be such a nightmare.  But hey, I got Jayson Werth and Manny Machado bobble heads in one of their drawings, and a very good lunch was included with the price of our registration. 

So now what?  Now we wait for the players to start trickling in and for the predictors to do their predicting for the upcoming season.  As I read all the projections, the one thing that makes me happy is that neither the Yankees nor the Braves appear on any of the "Top 10 teams" lists.  Most experts put the Nationals on top, with the Dodgers and Cardinals close behind.  I would actually like to see the Seattle Mariners do well this season.  They have Robinson Canó and Nelson Cruz offensively, and one of the best arms in Felix Hernandez.  And the Royals did so well last year that it would be nice to see them do well this season too, especially with their good run production. 

As far as my Nationals are concerned, they have six good arms in their starting rotation.  That's right - most teams have five starters and the Nationals have six since they signed Max Scherzer.  Rumor has it that Tanner Roark will be moved to the bullpen, :-( and some are even saying that Stephen Strasburg could be traded (!).  All I know is that Bryce Harper needs to grow up and step up, Jayson Werth served his 5 days in jail for driving too fast (though he probably won't start the season because he is recovering from off-season shoulder surgery), and Ryan Zimmerman is being moved from third base to first base.  And by gosh, Wilson Ramos, can you stay healthy for one full season?  So let's wait and see if the predictors and experts and SABR analysts are right about the Nationals - only six weeks left until Opening Day!

In the meantime, you should know that Gary Sheffield played in 51 different ballparks.  Yep!  Now you can go back to shoveling snow...