Sunday, October 25, 2009

Baseball Place No. 70: Dome World -- and the Metrodome, too

"Are you here for the tour?” the Metrodome employee asked me.

Sometimes baseball adventures happen with no advance notice, and a fan must think on his feet.

Josh Pahigian takes us back to Minneapolis for spot No. 70 in his “101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out” for Dome World, a souvenir store that bills itself as the original baseball hall of fame.

I was in the Twin Cities for an education writers’ conference in 1996, and such trips sometimes allow for some limited sightseeing.

With a break one day, I walked down to the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, which is located on the fringe of downtown Minneapolis. I remember popping into a souvenir store with some baseball displays in the back, and that was probably the Dome World of which Josh speaks.

To be honest, it didn’t make much of an impression on me. The stores surrounding Wrigley, Fenway and even Tiger Stadium had more of the fun, old things that I liked.

And the Metrodome itself will never be confused with those ballparks. It’s pretty dull looking, virtually the same from any angle. There were some stylized cutouts of athletes and musicians in an area outside, a tribute to the multi-use nature of the facility.

I walked around snapping photos and noticed some people in the lobby, so I pushed through the revolving glass door, thinking maybe a gift store was open.

An employee approached as soon as I stepped inside.

“Are you here for the tour?”

There is, of course, only one answer.

“Yes. Yes, I am.”

“Oh, good, your group just started. Go down this hallway and you can catch up with them.”

I could scarcely believe my good fortune. I also proceed with caution. If this was some senior citizens club or some folks who did not appreciate a late-arriving imposter, I’d be outed – and ousted – immediately.

Turning the corner, I found what appeared to be a group of Cub Scouts with dad chaperones.

I stood at the end of the group. A couple people of looked over. I waved and smiled – one of those awkward “Sorry I’m late” waves, at them as well as the group of kids.

I suspect they figured I was the father of one of the kids in the group, one of those dads who does not get too involved and chaperones only cool sporting activities.

The tour guide continued talking as if nothing was amiss and everyone’s attention quickly turned back to her.


It was a pretty good tour, starting in one of the inner tunnels of the stadium, which looked more like the inside of something like the Nassau Coliseum than a baseball stadium.

We went up into the press box, and looked down at the field for the first time. A college football team was practicing down one end of the field, but the infamous “Hefty Bag” outfield wall was there for all to see.

It looked like there were giant curtains in the upper deck in the outfield covering some of the seats, and massive banners of players hung in front of the curtains.

Still, it looked like a pretty sterile place.

We peeked into a luxury box, and then back down to the lower level.

Moving around with the group, I engaged in careful small talk with the dads. “Pretty neat, huh?” “The kids sure are having a good time.” “We should do this again sometime.”

No one asked which kid was mine. I worried about this.

We paused in front of a door that led to the Twins clubhouse, but were not allowed inside. Then we took the tunnel out to the field and on to the artificial turf.

The guide pointed out the luxury boxes again from the field, noting one in particular. She said that Rick Aguilera was ticked off at something that season and threw a ball so hard that it broke one of the windows. Manager Tom Kelly, she said, was not pleased and made Aguilera pay to replace the glass.

Aggie seemed pretty mild-mannered as a Met, so I figured something about Minneapolis must have got to him. Probably Prince.

Then the guide told us we’d have some time to ourselves to run around the field as long as we didn’t go too close to the football players or go on the mound and dirt sliding places around the bases.


I headed straight to the Hefty Bag because A) I didn’t want to linger near the other dads in case one started to get chatty and ask questions, and B) It’s the Hefty Bag in the Metrodome!

I remember a Dodge ad stretched from the right field foul pole all the way into far right-centerfield. Simply massive.

And I was surprised there was little effort to conceal all the seats in the outfield sections that were sideways because they were folded up. It seemed kind of like the kind of thing you’d see in a high school gymnasium.

Before long, some of the kids joined me and we were all making pretend Kirby-like catches up against the wall. Kids don’t ask questions.

I also paused to look up at the inflatable gray ceiling and imagine what it’s like to follow the flight of a fly ball, a notoriously difficult act in the Dome.

After a while, the guide waved us back in and the tour was done. I stuck with the group through the lobby then drifted away outside, quickly making it back to the hotel and the conference.

The Twins this year also bid farewell to the Metrodome, with the Division Series defeat against the vile Yankees likely to be the final baseball game there.

The field opened on April 3, 1982, baseball’s third domed stadium -- behind the Astrodome and Kingdome -- and first with an inflatable roof. It cost $68 million, and, as the guide proudly told us, was $2 million under budget.

It remains the only venue to host an MLB All-Star Game, a World Series – twice – an NCAA Final Four and a Super Bowl.

And, apparently, it allows tours for Cub Scout groups – and their friends.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Baseball Place No. 69, Land Stadium; Alternative Place No. 69A: Victory Field

How important to a stadium is the view beyond centerfield?

Josh Pahgian taps a seaside park in San Diego for place No. 69 in his “101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out.”

Carroll B. Land Stadium is on the campus of Point Loma Nazarene University, built into the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Baseball America named it the most scenic ballpark in the country.

I’ve never been there, but I did get to what the Baseball America called the best ballpark in the minors.

That would be:

Alternative Place No. 69A: Victory Field

As Pat Zachary will surely tell you, it’s difficult to replace a legend. Yet that’s what the Indianapolis Indians Triple-A team tried to do when in wanted to replace Owen J. Bush Stadium in the mid-1990s.

Not only was Bush a classic, old-school ballpark, but was a movie star, too serving as the backdrop for "Eight Men Out."

But Victory Field does a fine job.

The Baseball Truth gang made Victory our Day 2 stop for the 2007 Executive Game the day after watching the Cubs smack around the Reds in Cincinnati.

We were impressed. Fans enter the brick ballpark through the centerfield gates, strolling around the grassy berm seating area before entering a two-deck seating area.

The view from the seats is spectacular, showing off the Indianapolis skyline and the RCA Dome. The park has room for about 15,000 people, but didn’t seem that large from the inside.

Located downtown, the ballpark opened in 1996 and is surrounded by the Indianapolis Zoo, the NCAA Hall of Champions, the Indiana State Museum and other cultural institutions.

It takes its name from the original ballpark, which opened as Perry Stadium in 1931 but was renamed Victory Field in 1942 to salute celebrate victory in World War II, which wasn’t over at that point. It was renamed after Bush, a former player, manager and owner, in 1967.

Will, Scott, Scott's daughter Leah and I arrived early – of course – and found some fun, playing baseball-themed carnival games and checking out the usual assortment of ballpark snacks.

We had seats in the upper deck along the first base side, and found them not too high at all, kind of like the old upper seating area at Tiger Stadium.

Leah got a little bored halfway through the game, so she and I went exploring. We managed to sit right behind the home dugout for a spell, watching coach Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens interact with fans.
Scott and Leah had fun playing on the berm in the outfield -- a great place to see the game, too.

Then we mingled and posed with players in the bullpen, ran up and down the berms for a while, made it over to the other bullpen for more mingling and posing and finally caught up with Rowdie, the mascot.

Darned if I can figure out what Rowdie is supposed to be. He looked kind of like an opossum with a baseball for a nose.

We enjoyed a tight game, with the visiting Charlotte Knights beating the Indians 3-2,with Darin Erstad making a rehab appearance.

Sports Illustrated, too, called Victory Field the best minor-league ballpark in America. I don’t know if I’d call it that. I might opt for Holman Field in Vero Beach. But Victory sure was all that we’d hoped for and a fine way to close out another successful Executive Game weekend.

And I'm a little strange, but I'd rather see a cool skyline over the centerfield wall than the ocean.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Baseball place No. 64: Nolan Ryan Center; Alternative Place No. 64A: The Astrodome -- and an unauthorized peek

I was hoping my trip to Texas would lead me some sites in Josh Pahigian’s “101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out.”

I came close.

Josh leads us to the Nolan Ryan Center in Alvin, where the former Met grew up, for place No. 64. Located at Alvin Community College, the center posts exhibits about the hurler, and I’m confident there’s a whole wing dedicated to the 1969 World Series.

But I didn’t venture beyond Houston, where Ryan pitched for the Astros. I didn’t see too many references to The Express at Minute Maid Park, though there was a statue of him at a hotel across the street.

Fair enough, since Ryan didn’t play at Minute Maid, and maybe the fine folks of Houston are a little ticked that Ryan has become more attached to the Texas Rangers.

So I set out to find the place where Ryan actually pitched, which would be:

Alternate Place No 64A: The Astrodome

Yes, the Eighth Wonder of the World still stands, though it has seen better days.

The Astros moved downtown and the Texans football team have massive Reliant Stadium, which towers over the first-ever domed stadium.

There’s a lot of Mets history in that dome, including what one author called “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” Game 6 of the 1986 National League playoffs.

So I figured I’d head over and just walk around the outside, taking some photos. The Texans wanted $8 to park, even though there was nothing going on at either stadium. A friendly attendant suggested I could park in the shopping center across the street and walk over.

After grabbing a quick turkey sandwich at Subway – proving that I had an official reason to park in the lot – I strolled over to see the dome.

It was sad. The mighty Astrodome, which inspired the team to change its name and even create plastic grass, looks pretty unloved next to the new stadium.

It has a new name – the Reliant Astrodome – but it appears there has been no maintenance on the building since the move. It looked dirty, and there were missing pieces of siding here and there.

It was also surrounded by a series of cowboy statues – as opposed to Cowboys statues – since the dome hosted the Houston Rodeo for years.

I figured I’d make a lap, snapping photos near and afar.

Then, on the far side, I saw what appeared to be a truck ramp leading under the stadium. There were two swing-out garage doors, and one was open.

Hmm. I thought maybe I could walk down and an employee or kind security guard would allow me to poke my head in and snap photos.

So I slinked down the ramp, and as I got closer to the door I could see a little inside. It led not to some inner hallway, but to what was the centerfield gate. Off in the distance were the famous rainbow-striped seat sections, with light pouring though the panels of the roof.

I stood in the door. I looked to my left, and to my right. There were no employees to be found.



An adventure should have a little risk. If I had taken another step forward, I supposed it could be considered trespassing.

I pondered what would happen if caught. I was an obvious fan, with cap on head and camera in hand. No harm was intended. I figured I’d get a, “Hey! You’re not supposed to be in here!” and escorted to the door – or I’d run back to the car at the Subway before they could catch me.

After about 10 seconds of deep contemplation, I took a bold step into the Astrodome.

It was spectacular.

I started snapping photos, first with my camera then with the iPhone, quickly sending shots to Will and Greg Prince, figuring that I could be tossed out at any moment and knowing they'd like to share in the fun.

I stood were the outfield fence once was, heart racing and trying to absorb everything I could see.

I don’t remember if there were lights on, or whether the semi-transparent roof was allowing enough light in to illuminate the inside. But it was plenty bright.

The famed plastic grass was gone, the floor was hard concrete. The third base side was filled with those golf cart-like trams that I guess are used to drive fans in from the distant regions of the parking lots for football games.

The first base side was littered with folding chairs and other odds and ends. It struck me that the Astrodome was now the world’s largest storage shed.

After several minutes of not being discovered, I became a little bolder, and started walking into centerfield. Not too far, maybe 10 to 15 feet beyond where the warning track once was.

Turning around, I saw some old advertising signs, blank scoreboards and a sign reading “Home of the Houston Astros" with the orange and blue logo the team hasn’t used since the rainbow days, the design with the stadium in the middle and orbiting baseballs.

I looked at the light coming in the roof and wondered what it would be like for a player to stand in that very spot trying to track the flight of a fly ball.

I swear I could see Mike Scott and his scuffballs, the Toy Cannon launching bombs, Don Wilson and J.R. Richard and Jose Cruz and Cesar Cedeno and those magnificent rainbows.

I thought about Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs playing tennis, the Bad News Bears with the crowd chanting “Let them play!” and the 1986 All-Star Game with Doc, Gary and Keith wearing their white cleats.

But mostly I thought about Oct. 15, 1986. The Mets needed to win that Game 6 or face Mike Scott in a deciding seventh game. Scott, a former Met, had our boys completely psyched out, beating them in two starts in the series.

I was at the University of Missouri at the time, watching the game on Tony's television in our off-campus apartment.

The Astros scored three runs off Bob Ojeda in the first inning, and neither team could score again until the top of the ninth, when the Mets got two two runs off a tired Bob Knepper, then drew two walks off Dave Smith before Ray Knight hit a sac fly to tie the game.

At that point, I had to go to class. I played the "I had to watch the Mets" card once before, for a 1985 trip to St. Louis to see Dwight Gooden in person. The professor was not impressed. I didn't want to try that again.

After class I pedaled back to the apartment as fast as I could and turned on the television, hoping some station would have the final score. And to my total shock, the game was still being played.

I missed Darryl Strawberry scoring a go-ahead run in the 14th inning, only to have Billy Hatcher tie the game again with a home run. And I arrived with the Mets batting in the top of the 16th, scoring three runs.

But we know the Mets do nothing easily, allowing the Astros score two runs. After Keith famously warned him to stop throwing fastballs for face the consequences, Jesse Orosco struck out Kevin Bass with the tying run on second and the winning run on first. We were going to the World Series for the first time since 1973.

The Astrodome matters.

The team came into the league with the Mets in 1962 as the Houston Colt .45s with assurances that an indoor stadium would protect fans from the sweltering Texas summers.

The first game came in 1965 one a field with real grass. But players complained they couldn’t see the ball against the Lucite roof. Once painted over, the grass died and the team played on dirt painted green.

That, of course, led to the invention of the plastic playing surface forever known as Astroturf.

Now, there are people who bemoan the existence of both domed stadiums and plastic grass. But you could not have had retractable roof masterpieces like Minute Maid Park and Miller Park – both with real grass – without that first step, the Astrodome.

Minute Maid opened in 2000, and Reliant Stadium opened for the Texans in 2002. The Houston Rodeo moved next door in 2003, leaving the Astrodome hosting only an occasional event.

It seems to me that it’s wrong to demolish history. I wish there was more left of Shea than plaques in the parking lot. But I don’t know if it is right to keep up an unused stadium.

So for now it stands -- a garage for trams and a storage shed.

I stood there in deep centerfield, looking for ghosts in rainbow jerseys and wondering if I could walk deeper or even up into the stands for more views.

There’s a difference between boldness and recklessness. I’d experienced what I came for and far beyond. Intentional or not, The Astrodome offered a wonderful gift and I didn’t want to abuse it. I took a long last look and headed back out into the sunshine.

Clearly there was a baseball statue out here at one point, but I have no idea what it was.

Vivian L. Smith was an Astros co-owner who played a big role in the the development of the Astrodome complex.
I thought it was funny at a fire hydrant across the street from the Astrodome was painted in Mets colors. A tribute to "The Greatest Game Ever Played," perhaps?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Tiger fans, these New Yorkers know your pain

One of the nice things about going to a game at Comerica Park is that you occasionally bump into another New Yorker.

I ran into Liberty near the carousel food court last month and a Tigers photog snapped this shot. Both of us are dressed for the occasion, though I’m wearing Pedro Martinez’s Mets All-Star Game jersey from 2005.

My relationship with the Tigers is complicated.

There are two big strikes against the team.

First, they play in the American League. Ick.

Second, they’re not the Mets.

Neither are entirely the team’s fault. But I can only obsessively follow one heart-breaking franchise at a time and I certainly cannot abandon my roots.

After all, I’m not a Michigander who was born in New York. I’m a New Yorker who lives in Michigan.

The former fondly remembers eating great poppy seed bagels for breakfast every day. The latter still eats poppy seed bagels for breakfast every day and bemoans that they’re just not as good as the ones in Massapequa Park.

I don’t root against the Tigers. I treat them with friendly indifference.

A lot of friends here are big fans, and the Tigers have provided a venue for some amazing baseball adventures for me over the years, including a World Series game.

It’s nice to see former West Michigan Whitecaps wearing the Old English D. I make an annual late-season trip to Comerica. I watch some games on television while on the treadmill.

This year, however, was a little different.

With the Mets decimated by injuries, I started paying a little bit of attention to the folks in Detroit, checking the scores each night and looking to see if Curtis Granderson was doing well.

I cared, for a change.

And I commiserated with co-workers as losses to the Royals and White Sox mounted and the Twins crept closer.

I followed Tuesday’s disaster on my iPhone, and felt a very familiar feeling setting in.

On Wednesday, a distraught co-worker slumped into her seat, saying she was still unable to get over that the Tigers lost first place on the final game of the season, blowing the tie-breaker in extra innings.

After months of planning and looking forward to post-season baseball, there would be none for her.

"Oh, I know how you feel," I said with a sigh. "Exactly how you feel."

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Minute Maid Park, all to myself

I arrived at Minute Maid Park on Thursday and a friendly security guard warmly greeted me as workers nearby readied Union Station for a Women’s Chamber of Commerce event, a sure sign that baseball was done for the year.

“Do you folks offer tours of the ballpark?” I asked.

“Wait right here!” he said before running off to chase another employee, appearing again in a few minutes.

They told me to pop into the gift shop to buy a ticket and we’d be off. And when I came out, my new friends Damien and Jen were waiting and started spouting facts about the building’s life as a train station before the Astros arrived 10 years ago.

“Shouldn’t we wait for everyone else?” I asked.

“You’re it!” Damien said. “And that’s OK.”

So off we went on my personal tour of Minute Maid.

I was in Texas last week helping family, and my mother-in-law, who spoils me wildly, insisted that I have a day to myself once we were finished helping her sister to chemo and radiation treatments.

I had been to Minute Maid once before, in December 2004 when I was in Houston for an education writers’ conference. I had five minutes in the gift shop before it closed and managed to snap some photos outside in the dusk.

Thursday’s adventure was the extreme opposite, as we spent the morning exploring the ballpark from top to bottom, inside and out.

We started in the upper deck, where Damien pointed out the 900-ton retractable roof that closes in 13 minutes and the locomotive that moves across the leftfield wall at 10 miles an hour to start the game and after an Astros’ player hits a home run.

The roof is closed any time the temperature hits 85 degrees, which in Houston is most of the summer. The decision is made in the early afternoon because it takes two to three hours for the air-conditioning to cool down the seating area.

The windows above the 422 sign are the only breakable glass facing the field. That’s owner Drayton McLane’s office, and he promised $50,000 to any player who could hit a home run through the window. No one’s been able to hit the mark. Of course, the roof is closed most of the time.

The locomotive’s coal tender used to be filled with baseballs. But after the stadium’s name change, they were replaced with oranges. The problem is that the oranges are so big that people think they’re pumpkins, my guides told me.
We slipped inside to explore the club level. Here's Damien in Drayton McLane's suite. He said McLane tends to watch games from his seats behind home plate and uses the suite for clients and friends. I liked some of the small details, like the baseball pattern on the light shades.
Then we moved into the press box and broadcast booth. Leganday broadcaster Milo Hamilton -- that's him on the famous call of Hank Aaron's 715th home run -- has a special, customized chair. The team also has a display honoring broadasters in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Here's the backdrop in the broadcast booth, our last stop before heading down onto the field.
My guide friends were awesome. They said it was OK if I stood on the on-deck circle, and even moved the hoses. Then we stepped into the dugout and posed for more photos.

There were two rows of benches, one close to the railing and the traditional one along the back wall, that was actually a two-level bench. It was a little hard to see the field, but easier when I sat on top.

I realize there are a lot of people who don't like "Tal's Hill" in centerfield, but confess I love it! It's a feature unique to Minute Maid, at least in modern times,. Named after team President Tal Smith, the hill is a tribute to Crosley Field, which had a similar elevation. The flagpole is in play, like at Tiger Stadium, and has been hit on a fly only once.

Walking around the foul area and warning track, we slipped into the home bullpen. I was allowed everywhere except for the mounds, which were covered in a tarp because it takes the grounds crew several hours to manicure each.

The visitor’s bullpen is below the leftfield concourse and doesn’t get any sun, so the grass there is actually Astroturf from the Astrodome. Players enter through a gate that’s sort of hidden in the outfield wall padding.

The guides allowed me to pick up the vsitors' bullpen phone. It started ringing, but no one was in the dugout, so it was OK. I could just about hear Jerry yelling, "Get K-Rod up!"

The hand-operated scoreboard is accessible through the same gate, and there are two levels for several employees to scramble around and update out-of-town scores. It gets pretty stuffy and steamy. The gate leads to the field and the team doesn’t want non-players running around. So the rule is, once you’re inside the scoreboard, you’re there until the end of the game.

President George H.W. Bush and the former first lady have season tickets right behind home plate, sharing the row with McLane and his wife. Damien said it’s not unusual to see them at games, especially when the team is doing well.

The Diamond Club had some neat features. Just below these windows was a crystal model of the stadium that didn't photograph well. But it's neat because it's the only place in the entire ballpark that still reads, "Enron Field."

There were two of these boots, holdovers from the 2004 All-Star Game, famous, of course, for Roger Clemens gacking up six early runs.
The boot ended my official tour, but I kept exploring outside the ballpark. I liked how the sidewalks had baseball seams in them.

Then there was a little park area with bleachers and statues of Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio making a classic 4 to 3 play.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Baseball place No. 68: Tiger Stadium

The famous flag pole that was in play out in centerfield was the only thing remaining of Tiger Stadium when I drove past the site along I-75 last month.

Detroit started tearing down the glorious stadium last season, leaving the portion stretching from dugout to dugout. But the plans to save even that part were, like so much of Detroit, cast aside.

Josh Pahigian taps the stadium at thet corner of Michigan and Trumbull as place No. 68 in his "101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out."

Tiger Stadium was my baseball home away from home, second only to Shea in terms of games attended. Adventures there have been all over these places.

Rather than recount those, I thought it would be more fun to share some photos from the vault. Back in 1990 and 1991 BC -- before children -- I'd make it to a game each homestand, arrive early and take photos. The bullpens were open, near the stands and fans could get within 10 feet of pitchers warming up.

I'd also try to snag some autographs, but got tried of the professional collectors pushing in and being rude.

One of my favorite shots. Rock Raines and Frank Thomas were posing for someone else, and I started snapping away.

Nolan Ryan and Goose Gossage came to town with the Rangers.

Roger Clemens in pre-bat-chucking days.

Brett Saberhagen

I'm not sure who is in the middle, but that's Dave Henderson -- another favorite -- and Reggie Jackson. Henderson always seemed to have fun with fans. I remember once yelled out, "Dave, you're on my Rotisserie team!" and he smiled and said, "I know! That's why I'm doing so well!"
George Brett

Cecil Fielder was chatting with Dave Stewart -- who shot me the evil eye.

Bob Welch

Mike Moore
Julio Franco

Ron Karkovice and Milt Cuyler were favorite players even though they weren't stars.