Thursday, March 23, 2017

Spring training adventures, part three: Astros vs. Tim Tebow and the rest of the Mets at First Data Field

After seeing the Mets on the road twice, we were very excited to get up to St. Lucie and our Mets on home turf. Or, at least, the Florida version of home.

It's hard to describe how rare a treat it is to be surrounded by fellow Mets fans. Usually I get to see the team on the road. But to be surrounded by people in Mets caps and jerseys cheering for the team is to be part of a community, as opposed to being an interloper.

Plus, this time I got to be with my Dad, my sister Jenny and niece Diana.

Ballpark: The name is new this year, but First Data Field has been the Mets’ spring home since 1988. It’s also been known as Thomas J. White Stadium, Digital Domain Park and Tradition Field.

It’s more of an old-school ballpark, but I like it. There have been improvements over the years, and there have been improvements over the years to make it seem less like a poured concrete mountain among the scrub pines.

It’s a fun park with a lot of energy. Lots of photos of Mets heroes have been added over the years, along with Tiki bars and other party spots.

Stamping: In the team store, and, again, the folks knew exactly what we were doing. 

I have to say, this was a pleasant surprise at all three ballparks. I’ve been to minor and major league parks where folks have no clue what I’m talking about.

Cap Quest: We actually came to Data First Field on Tuesday, an off day, to buy tickets for the Friday game.

I was happy to see the team store was open and pretty empty, and it was nice to have all the time in the world to check out all the Mets stuff.

Naturally, I went right for the wall of caps. I wasn’t optimistic after the experience at Roger Dean. But there, on the top shelf, shining like a beacon of spring time glory, was the cap with the Mets logo and the Florida outline. There was much rejoicing!

I looked for the price tag, and it was $20 – among the lowest-priced caps in the wall. There was even more rejoicing!

When we came back to the team store on Friday to get the stamp, I noticed that there were no more of the caps of glory. I did see that there were two left on the “Cool Stuff” trailer outside the stadium. But I was pretty happy to get the cap on Tuesday.

Naturally I wore the cap to the Wednesday game in West Palm Beach, and one of the nice gentlemen working at the park commented on the cap.
The Mets play under the watchful eye of Gil Hodges.

“That’s a nice one,” he said. “I see all the caps passing by, and I’ve never seen one like that. What did that set you back, $40?”

I happily told the story of the Cap Quest and the low price.

Program: Or, in this case, programs. The Mets were selling two versions of the program, one with cool portraits of pitchers, and the other with fielders.

Some curious choices. The pitchers had four portraits – Thor, Harvey, deGrom and Matz. Guess no one wanted to speculate on who was going to win the fifth spot in the rotation. 

But we could note that the closer just led the league in saves and set a team record in the process. Would have been worthy.

But the blue cover had five players. The Captain, Cabrera, Cespedes, Neil Walker and Jose Reyes. Reyes surprised me, as he was slated to be a part-time player. 

Where’s Curtis Granderson – winner of a nice humanitarian award during the off-season?

But that’s a minor quibble. These are the best programs of the spring, even though the scorecard was a little tight and didn’t include a spot for pitching stats. 

That’s actually a thing, because my niece Diana was attending her first Mets spring training game and I was teaching her to keep score.

Ballpark food: I was looking for some wonderful, New York food. The Mets were selling authentic Italian ices, and you had a choice of a regular blue helmet cup or a pink one. I snagged a chocolate Italian ice and the pink helmet cup, neither of which are available in Michigan.

Cup: Outstanding spring training souvenir. Colorful, with the spring training schedule.

Autographs: None. This was a slight disappointment. The stadium is configured in a way that players could be accessible, and a bunch of folks were gathered in proper spots. But no players came over. We left Florida with new signatures from Terry and Travis, and I was very happy to get them.

Souvenir hunt: We visited the team store on Tuesday when we got the tickets. Once the giddiness of finding the glorious cap subsided – this took a while – we explored the rest of the store. 
Tim Tebow taking a mighty cut.

There was a lot of Tim Tebow stuff. I’m OK with that, though I didn’t buy any. I did pick up a cool “I was there – Spring Training 2017” pin for my work bulletin board and several stadium postcards.

Here’s something the Mets do that is very cool. There’s a prize wheel, with two spins for $5. Some of the prizes were pretty cool – actual caps! – and other assorted souvenir things. 

My sister, niece and I all took turns and landed a St. Lucie Mets team set, Mets earbuds, thunderstix and some other things.

Game time: We were excited to see Matt Harvey pitch, and got some decent photos while he was warming up.

Matt pitched pretty well, but he was constantly getting his heat up in the zone. When major league batters see heat consistently up in the zone, they deposit baseballs on the wrong side of the fence. Which is what Reid Brignac did in the third inning.

I’m not sure what Addison Reed’s issues were, but he gave up six more runs in the following inning, giving the Astros a lead they were not going to give up.

But we came close! Cespedes launched a bomb, and so did Lucas Duda. Mets players not likely to see Citi Field this season hit a series of doubles that brought the team within a run.

Then came the moment of drama. Tim Tebow, still looking for his first spring hit, came up with the game on the line. He worked the count, but, like the Mighty Casey, wiffed.

Tebow drew the loudest cheers during the pre-game introductions, and his successful catch of a can of corn drew quite the ovation. I’m OK with Tebow. 
The Gnome of Victory and Celebration was joined by Grrr for the big game.

It’s a no-risk, high-reward situation for the Mets and everything I’ve heard and see makes me think he’s a nice enough guy. I’m pulling for him.

Final score: Astros 7, Mets 6 – a great day at the ballpark with Dad, Aunt Jenny and Diana.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Spring training adventures, part 2: Mets vs Astros at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches

A fastball hisses in the nanosecond before it reaches the plate and lands with a loud pop in catcher’s mitt. It hurts your palm just listening to it.

You learn this when you are sitting four rows behind home plate. Dad snagged the best seats I’ve ever had for a Major League game for our second Mets game of the spring.

Game two: Mets vs Astros, Ballpark of the Palm Beaches

Ballpark: The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches is the brand-new facility and home to the Astros and Nationals. It’s a sprawling complex in a park-like setting.

There are some neat design elements, and some quirks. For example, the parking is on the fringes so you have to walk through the practice field area to get to the main stadium, which is in the heart of the complex.

The stadium itself isn’t very distinguishable from the outside, but there are giant cap logo structures for both the Astros and Nationals on the approaches. It’s a neat touch that I’ve never seen before.

I’ve also never seen signs warning fans not to get too close to the retention ponds because of alligators. Good to know.

Inside the park seemed a little sterile. Now, to be fair, the park had been open just a week at this point and as we learned from Citi field, it will takes a little time to build character and add color. There was a scramble to get the park completed by the spring opener and I’m sure we’ll see things added in the years to come.

Stamping: In the team store. The clerk knew exactly what we were doing and let me do the stamping.

Cap quest: There were many, many kinds of caps in the store for the Nationals and Astros – even one with the iconic rainbow stripes on the brim. But as with the Jupiter store, the sweet caps with the Florida outline were nowhere to be found.

Program: They were available for $5 on the concourse and in the store, with versions for both the Astros and the Nationals. I snagged one of each. Both came with a page-sized Jeff Bagwell card on heavy stock commemorating his recent Hall of Fame election. It has a very nice scorecard with special spaces for the pitchers.

Cup: This is a bit of a letdown. This is a souvenir cup in name only. It’s translucent plastic with the ballpark logo. Not the inaugural season logo, mind you. The vendor said he was filling it up to the very top because there are no reduced-price refills. Everyone has reduced-price refills when you buy the stadium cup. I suspect this policy will change soon.

Autographs: None, and this is one of the park’s flaws. I get a sense that it’s not designed for fans, but rather to attract group outings.
Usually the best place to get autographs in the spring – at games, anyway – is the first row from the dugout to bullpen.

But at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, that whole area is dedicated to party boxes, and the netting extends practically all the way down the line, because goodness knows people sitting in those seats aren’t paying attention to the game.
Party boxes dominate the space between the dugout and the left field foul pole.

There was one spot far down the line in the corner without netting. I went there, and an usher told me I couldn’t stay.

It was different along the third base side, with the more traditional setup.

Cool stuff: I hung out in the grassy berms watching batting practice and had some nice, brief conversations with players.

Me: Hi, Sean. How you doing?
Sean Gilmartin: Great!


Me: Hi Frank. How is Zach Wheeler doing?
Frank Viola: Zach’s doing well. He’s starting on Friday.

So armed with inside knowledge of the Mets’ most pressing pitching question of the spring, I was content to sit back and watch batting practice.

At one point I head Mets infielder Peter Alonso shout “Heads up!” to the handful of us standing on the berm, and in fell a baseball from the bat of either Peter Biondi or John Mora.

To say I “caught” the ball isn’t exactly accurate. It hit the berm and I triumphantly picked it up, showing all my first-ever batting practice homer.

Ballpark food: I was looking for something less complicated than our Cardinal Dog at Roger Dean and was relieved to see your basic hot dogs. Slight complaint: It was a dog in a foil bag.

Now, I’m not a concessions expert. But I don’t know anyone who likes a dog in a bag. 

This is a sign that the dogs are prepared long in advance, will be lukewarm and the bun will be very soggy and sticking to the hot dog.

Game time: With these spectacular seats, I didn’t want to miss a moment of the action. We were just off the plate and close to the Mets on-deck circle – or at least the place where the players stand when they don’t want to stand in the on-deck circle.

Not a ton of starters made the trip. We again enjoyed Juan Lagares, Michael Conforto, Matt Reynolds and Wilmer Flores. They were joined by Asdrubal Cabrera, which was nice!

Robert Gsellman started for the Mets, and was a little rocky, giving up a couple runs in the first. Logan Taylor got hit pretty hard and give up 5 runs, three of them earned. The Mets defense was not at its best this day.

The Astros tacked on more runs in the seventh, with my new friend Sean Gilmartin giving up 3. Astros first baseman A.J. Reed hit a monstrous homer in the eighth, but the game was well out of hand at that point.

On the Mets side, Cabrera led off the fourth with a homer that just cleared the fence in left. It looked like awkward swing and everyone seemed surprised that it left the park. The Mets other run came on a Lagares sacrifice fly in the fifth.

Final score: Astros 12, Mets 2. But still an awesome day at the park with Dad.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Spring training adventures, part 1: Mets vs. Marlins at Roger Dean Stadium

Steven Matz on the hill against the Marlins in Jupiter.
Here’s how to spend a pretty cool spring break: Three Mets games in one week, each at a different ballpark!

I spent last week with my family in Florida and my Dad snagged seats for the Monday game against the Marlins in Jupiter, the Wednesday game against the Astros in the new West Palm Beach park and the Friday game against the Astros in Port St. Lucie.

Naturally, we have rules and a routine for attending games.

And this year we had a special quest. I saw online a really cool Mets spring training cap, with a blue bill and white crown. The traditional Mets cap logo was atop an embroidered outline of Florida. 

It’s just a really cool cap, and apparently there was one for each team – with the Cactus League teams instead getting an outline of Arizona.

I set out to purchase the cap online once we confirmed the trip – and all traces of it seemed to vanish. I couldn’t find the cap – any version of the cap – on any website. This is very odd, and I placed all hopes in finding one in one of the stadium team shops.

There is essential equipment for all spring games.

First, is the brand new MLB Spring Training Pass-Port. Getting stadium stamps has become an essential activity, and it is fun to be a part of the greater “Stampeder” community. 

I have the MLB and minor league versions off the books, and ordered the spring training edition in anticipation of this trip.

Next, we make sure the blue backpack has my book, “The New York Mets, the first Quarter Century.” 

Whenever I meet someone who played for the Mets, I ask them to sign the book. There are several hundred autographs in there, and the relaxed spring training atmosphere is a great place to ask players and coaches to sign.

And, of course, the battle-scarred Gnome of Victory and Celebration made the trip for those special photo opportunities.

Here are our adventures.

Game One: Mets vs Marlins, Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter.

Ballpark: Roger Dean is a nice park, built in 1998 and originally hosting the Cardinals and Expos. The Expos departed and Marlins arrived in 2002. It seats nearly 7,000 and Dad knew where there was free parking. We’ve been there many times for spring and minor league games.

Stamping: In the team store. The clerk knew exactly what we were doing and let me do the stamping.

Cap Quest: Since we were in the team store, I headed to the large display of caps. The stadium stocks Cardinals and Marlins gear, of course, but usually has some Mets items, too, given the proximity to St. Lucie and the vast number of New Yorkers now living in South Florida. 

I figured that if I saw the Cardinals and Expos versions of the caps, I’d eventually find the Mets version. The store had many caps, but none resembling the one we were searching for. This was not a good sign.

Program: We always get a program because keeping score is an essential part of the game experience. It cost $6, which is a little high. But everything at Roger Dean is a little high. But it is a pretty good program, and the scorecard is large – perfect for substitution-filled spring games – and a spot to record the pitchers.

Ballpark food: I went searching for a basic hot dog, but the concession stands had only specialty items. My “St. Louis Dog” was wrapped in bacon and buried in pulled pork and cold slaw. It was made fresh and was very filling.

Cup: I like to buy the souvenir cup, and Roger Dean has a very nice, full-color cup with Marlins and Cardinals – including future hall-of-famer Ichiro. And it was good for discounted refills.

Autographs: Roger Dean is pretty accessible and we arrived early. Catcher Travis d’Arnaud and Manager Terry Collins came by and became the latest signatures to the book. I had not been able to add an active player since Scott Hairston in 2012, so they were welcome additions.
That's Terry Collins on the left and Travis on the right

One thing I did notice. People don’t just want a signature these days, they want selfies, too. This takes forever, and I can understand why a player might be reluctant to get close to the stands.

Game time: You don’t count on the road team to bring too many starters to a spring game, but I was very excited to see the posted lineup include Travis, Juan Lagares, Michael Conforto and have Steven Matz on the mound. The Mets also brought their top prospect, Amed Rosario, which was unexpected.

The Marlins seemed to have most of their starters, plus old friend Mat den Dekker.

Matz pitched two scoreless innings, aided by two great catches by Gold-Glover Lagares in center.

Travis continued his hot spring with a homer in the fourth, and the Marlins responded with a Giancarlo Stanton blast off Rafael Montero in the sixth. The Mets second-stringers put the game out of reach with a 6-run eighth, including a homer from L.J. Mazzilli.

Final score: Mets 8, Marlins 2. A great day at the park!

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Something Special About December: Nativity scene gift reminds us of the focus of the day

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Today's Something Special About December is our family nativity scene, a gift from my parents years ago. 

My Dad built the stable, complete with the light. 

We always display it front and center in the living room.

Today we are surrounded by family, celebrating this joyous day together. And you know the kids are older when the adults must wait for them to wake up!

I hope you all have a wonderful day!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Something Special About December: The traditional reading of the glorious 'Santa Cows'

Seems like every Christmas movie we see includes a scene where the family gathers around for a reading of "The Night Before Christmas."
It's an OK story, I guess. But our tradition -- and today's Something Special About December -- is the reading of "Santa Cows."
Keep in mind that we love baseball and cows. Our Rotisserie baseball team years ago was named Bovines.
So in this epic story, the family on Christmas Eve is visited not by Santa, but by the Santa Cows. And their sacks are filled with baseball stuff. And we're not talking about generic baseball stuff. They're unwrapping authentic MLB jerseys, caps and jackets.
And on Christmas morning, they go out and play baseball in the snow.
This is pretty amazing! A perfect Christmas story!
There are two sequels. They're nice, but without the baseball.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Something Special About December: Rocking and rolling all night with the Kissmas Tree

If there is room in the Christmas songbook for both Mahalia Jackson singing a majestic version of “Ave Maria” and the Singing Dogs barking a silly “Jingle Bells,” then there is space among the holiday treasures for what we call the Kissmas Tree.

I’m not sure why, but I’m drawn to the goofy battery operated, music-playing Christmas electronics. 

And today’s Something Special About December is about the best one I’ve ever found.

Once the Christmas items hit the shelves, I start hitting buttons. Most of these dancing Santas, reindeer or whatever seem to play “Jingle Bell Rock” and they’re fun for a moment or two.

Then one year at the local Meijer I came across this pudgy Christmas tree with sunglasses and a guitar. I hit the button and what to my wondering ears did I hear, but not “Jingle Bell Rock” but the opening chords to Kiss’ “Rock and Roll All Nite.”

And sure enough, there’s a voice that sounds somewhat like Gene Simmons – and kind of looks like him, too -- bursting into Christmas lyrics to the tune of the Kiss classic, leading to a chorus of, “I wanna rocking Christmastime and rocking, rolling New Year!”

This is awesome!

Mind you, I’m not looking for anything too deep here. There’s plenty of time to reflect on the big stuff. This is a blinking, dancing, guitar-strumming evergreen busting out a Kiss song, ending with “Merry Christmas, and rock and roll! YEAH!”

I love it. As Bono says, three chords and the truth!

The cat doesn’t. That’s Tug yowling in the background in the video. Or maybe he’s singing along. There’s a Cat Man in Kiss, after all.


Sunday, December 18, 2016

Something Special About December: A simple nativity scene is a holiday reminder

Christmas treasures don’t have to be expensive to be special. 

Today’s Something Special About December is about something I picked up as a University of Missouri student to have in my dorm room, and it’s been on my desk at work each Christmas season ever since.

I remember finding this simple nativity scene in a downtown Columbia store, and think it was about a dollar. It was something nice to have on my desk as a reminder of the season.

It doesn’t stand more than a couple inches tall, and doesn’t have angels, cows, sheep and many of the other things we expect. It’s pretty subtle, and appropriate for a newsroom.

After graduating, I’d keep it on my desk in the newsroom along with a plastic tree that stands maybe a foot and a half tall that I’ve had since childhood. 

The tree started appearing a little rough, losing branches and getting a replacement strand of lights every couple of years. As if that mattered, because I am loyal, even to plastic trees.

But together they moved with me from Connecticut to Flint and Grand Rapids. As for Lansing, the tree stays home now that we have the much-larger tree from Nana and its Michigan ornaments – and now a Michigan tree skirt that Julie made for me.

But the nativity sits on my desk next to the computer monitor, a gentle reminder to focus on what’s import both for the holidays and life in general.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Something Special About December: Cookies and pretzels, covered in chocolate

Today’s Something Special About December is a tasty treat and a daddy-daughter tradition.

Years ago I was looking for something fun to make to slip into Christmas packages heading out of state, and to share with co-workers.

We started by dipping Oreos in melted chocolate chips, using a double boiler, carefully carrying the dripping cookies over to the counter, where Caroline could smother them in sprinkles.

This created a pretty big mess, with a trail of chocolate from the stove to the counter. Then there was the burned fingertips from trying to keep a double boiler going.

When there wasn’t enough chocolate left in the bowl to cover a cookie, we started dipping mini pretzel sticks, just because we didn’t want to waste chocolate.
We learned several things.

First, Double-Stuff Oreos don’t work because the center melts while the chocolate coating cools, sending the top cookie sliding off.

Then, we found that while people liked the covered cookies, they loved the pretzels. There’s a neat sweet and salty thing going on, and they’re easier to eat.

We’ve improved our technique over the years, discovering melting chocolate in the craft stores and switching to an electric fondue pot, which makes a world of difference – and keeps the floor a lot cleaner.

And we’ve switched from making a lot of dipped cookies and some pretzels to some cookies and a whole bunch of pretzels of varying shapes.

This year was a little different, with my sprinkle applier off at college, so I was pressed into double duty. They might not look as pretty, but should still taste good!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Special Things About December: The Great Tree Hunt

Some Special Things About December are things, and others are beloved rituals.

Today we enjoyed the annual Christmas Tree Hunt Adventure. We’re still devoted to real trees – Michigan is the nation’s No. 3 producer of Christmas trees – and for years we’ve headed to the same

For years, we’ve been heading to the same family owned tree farm outside of Rockford. They have nice trees and other things going on that make the afternoon fun.

We grab a saw then head off into the rolling white fields, dotted with evergreens of varying size. Some families opt for the tractor ride, but we head out on foot.

The length of the search varies depending on the participants. Andrew, if he had his way, would grab the first tree he’d see. Caroline would like to explore every square inch of the farm, make a mental list of contenders, carefully consider the merits of each, review them a second time, then make a selection. And we have done this regardless of temperature and snow depth.

With the kids away, Julie ventured out with me today, and we decided upon a beautiful balsam fir in about 20 minutes.

There seemed to be an abnormally large number of families bringing dogs today, and Julie made the astute observation that we should beware of any tree circled by dog paw prints.

Once we’ve knelt in the snow and saw through the trunk, we drag the tree through the through the snow back to the buildings where crew stands it into a machine that shakes the heck out of the tree to remove loose needles and potential squirrels before sending it through a different machine that ties the branches close for easier transport.

Then we stop by the animal area to visit the sheep and the bad ass goats. 

I’ve never felt secure about stringing the tree to the roof of the Civic, so we fold down the back seats and manage to get most of it in the trunk. No matter how I try to wrap the tree in blankets, needles still get embedded.

The lining of my trunk is like a visit with the Ghost of Trees of Christmas Past.

“Hey, is this needle from the balsam fir of 2013?”
“Nope, looks more like the blue spruce of ’15.”

This is OK; a reminder of Christmas, and our fun family rituals, throughout the year.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Something Special About December: Frank's magical Christmas tie

I love classy Christmas ties. They’re a fun way to celebrate the Christmas season at work.

I have some nice ones. I wore one with Charlie Brown on it this week to a special work party. But that’s only because I needed to change the batteries in my favorite Christmas tie.

Yes, today’s Something Special About December is about the best Christmas tie ever.

I thought I was pretty festive at one of the Flint Journal’s annual Christmas parties. That is, until I saw Frank Ruggirello’s neckwear glowing from across the room at the Davison VFW Hall.

You see, Frank, married to colleague Linda Ruggirello, had a tie depicting a string of Christmas lights -- that actually light up. Different lights illuminate at different times. It is mesmerizing.

It’s a beacon of glad tidings, glimmering like a Christmas star attracting Wise Men. It brings joy to the world with a simple press of a button. It is, unquestionably, the best Christmas tie ever. 

If you think that you have the best Christmas tie, let me assure you, you do not.

And I know there are no others like this, because I spent the next several years searching. I could not pass a holiday tie rack without looking for one with bulb designs. I’d find one occasionally, but none of them ever lit up. They were inferior Christmas ties.

There are actually plenty of ties that play music and they are cool, until you are at a serious work meeting, lean forward on the conference table and suddenly hear and “Jingle Bells.” 

And once it starts, the song does not stop until is it is done. And everyone in the room looks at you as you clutch your tie hoping to muffle the sound. They do not break out in song. They just look at you.

Or so I’ve heard. It’s best not to dwell on such things.

Anyway, I’ve never found another light-up tie like Frank’s.

Then, one Christmas season, a package arrived from the Ruggirellos. Frank had decided it was pass on the tie and he knew only one person would appreciate its glory. Needless to say, that was a very merry Christmas.

So now, any time we have an important Christmas gathering, I know that my outfit is not complete until I add Frank’s tie, press the button and stride confidently into the party, joyfully – but silently – blinking Christmas cheer.

Thank you, Frank!