11th and Washington

11th and Washington: December 2004

Friday, December 31, 2004

Skylands Park made for fans

July 25, 1999

Skylands Park is New Jersey’s Field of Dreams.

Take the barn-style architecture, add the rolling hills and countryside, and throw in 32 eager, aspiring ballplayers wearing those classic – and classy – Cardinal uniforms, and people will come, Ray.

I went to a town called Augusta Monday, just a little early, and spent some time walking the trails of Stokes State Forest, just seven miles form the ballpark off Route 206 north. I passed the Appalachian Trail getting there, too. You might want to make a day of it, in part because it is a one-hour, 45-minute drive up that way from the Little Silver/Red Bank area.

You’ll know you are getting closer to Skylands park when Route 15 goes from four lanes down to two and you start seeing the neatly rolled hay bales dotting the fields around you. Then you’ll get to the intersection with Route 206 and a gas station on the corner. Make a right there, and you’ll see Skylands Park on your left – across the cornfield. It’s a big complex, with a batting cage, karate school and a small sporting goods store that serves as the New Jersey Cardinals gift shop.

I flew solo on this trip and bought an $8 box seat at about 5:30 for a 7:15 game. I sat in the first row, just five seats from the third-base dugout, and have never felt so close to a baseball game in which I was not playing. The on-deck hitters for the Hudson Valley Renegades, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ New York-Penn League affiliate, were so close I could have offered them some last-minute tips before they walked to the batter’s box. I could see the wrinkles in their jerseys. When Andy Diaz, the former Florida State star I recognized from last month’s College World Series, came out and warmed up for each at bat, the breeze picked up. He whipped his Louisville Slugger around so fast with one hand loosening up, I just hoped he did not lose his grip.

Skylands Park and New Jersey Cardinals games are for real baseball fans. You have to be willing to drive nearly two hours to watch two teams with maybe two or three recognizable names between them. There were not nearly as many contests and giveaways between innings – no advertising the giant Cardinal mascot, and only a few appearances by the roving microphone guy in the stands. The T-shirt slingshot came out a couple of times, and it was autograph bat night, so about 50 fans selected by their seat numbers won wooden bats which they could have autographed after the game. There was no karaoke on top of the dugout, which was music to my ears. Other than the fried dough and fresh-cut French fries, the menu selection is small and basic. It was more laid back and I loved it.

The first two innings were scoreless. The Cardinals’ B.R. Cook allowed leadoff doubles in each inning, but exciting plays by shortstop Damon Thames and centerfielder Tim Lemon – who threw Diaz out at home – kept the Renegades off the scoreboard. Hudson Valley starter Cody Getz – a lanky 6-foot-8 lefty – imitated David Cone for five batters, striking out four of them, but then got drilled on the right arm by a Lemon line drive. Getz went five innings, striking out seven, but allowed four runs on six hits in New Jersey’s 7-2 win.

Skylands came alive in the third when the Cards took a 2-0 lead on three consecutive hits, including two towering doubles. It seemed louder than any of the minor league crowds I’d heard so far this summer, but that may have been because I sat so close to the action. Fly balls do not seem to carry at Skylands, and I do not know if it was the weather, the pitchers, the hitters or the park. As a result, the two teams combined for five doubles, a triple, and a lot of long flyball outs to the warning track. But doubles and triples keep the crowd cheering longer anyway.

Without anyone to help with the food testing, I could only muster an appetite for the nachos grande and a huge Pepsi in a $2.75 Cardinals souvenir cup. The nachos ($4.25) came with plenty of cheese and salsa, and the jalapenos added the spice. Pretzels are $2.25, peanuts and popcorn $3.25. Bottled water is $2.50 and beers (Coors, Coors Light, Sam Adams among the choices) cost $3.25 for 16 ounces and $3.75 for 20.

After the game, the Cardinals players were given autograph pens and the fans who had won bats were allowed onto the field to get signatures from any of the players. I imagine the autograph book giveaway on Aug. 16 will be handled in a similar manner.

I enjoyed the scene for a little while, then made my way to the parking lot. It took only five minutes to exit the lot, then about three more to get back to Route 15. The field lights illuminated Skylands Park, which stood out in the night of that Sussex County cornfield. I turned onto Route 15 and the traffic disappeared, and I was swallowed by the country darkness.

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Friday, December 24, 2004

It ain’t over till it’s over at Yogi Berra Stadium

Sunset at Yogi Berra Stadium, Montclair. Posted by Hello

July 18, 1999

The beautiful thing about baseball is that from April through September there’s always a game.

While the major league All-Stars slugged it out in the Home Run Derby in Boston on Monday, my father, my friend Dave and I traveled to Yogi Berra Stadium on the campus of Montclair State University to watch the independent New Jersey Jackals host the Massachusetts Mad Dogs in a Northern League contest.

Last season, the Jackals won the Northeast League, which then took its eight teams and merged with the powerful Northern League – made up of teams from Wisconsin, Illinois and the Dakotas. The Northern League Central (the original Northern League) includes the St. Paul Saints, which has featured Rey Ordonez, Darryl Strawberry, J.D. Drew and currently Matt Nokes on the roster.

The Northern League East, in which the Jackals had the best record at 23-19 heading into Friday, keeps to itself in Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey and Quebec. The two sides will not meet until the third and final round of the playoffs when the Central and East champions compete in a best-of-5 series for the Northern League championship.

But if the Jackals play like they did in Monday’s 18-7 loss to the Mad Dogs, they won’t be making any trips to the Midwest come September.

First pitch for Jackals’ home games is 7:10, so plan some extra time for traffic. It took us 70 minutes to get to Yogi Berra Stadium. Unfortunately, it did not leave enough time to visit the Yogi Berra Museum, which sits above the field on the first-base side with Yogi and Yankees memorabilia – including the Yankees World Series trophy on loan.

It was at the museum where Berra reconciled with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, and the team is honoring Yogi with Yogi Berra Day today at the Stadium.

The field is built into a hill, which gave me the sensation of looking down on the players in a different sense from the one you get climbing into the bleachers at other parks. It’s more of a feeling of actually watching from a hill than a man-made rise of cement and steel.

Our $8 box seats were on the third-base side, just off home plate, in the higher section of boxes. All the lower boxes are reserved for season-ticket holders. Reserved-seat bleachers are down the lines beyond the boxes, and out in the right-field foul area is a picnic area and grass hill. Four dollars gets you in there, where you can bring your own chairs or blankets. Also bring a glove and be ready to run. Most of the foul balls were run down by kids out on the lawn. Parking is free.

It was not a good day for New Jersey starting pitcher Pete Terrana, who gave up six runs on two hits and five walks in just 2 1/3 innings. All but one Massachusetts starter scored, and only two did not drive in at least one run. Left fielder Tony Mitchell homered twice and scored four runs. Speedy and exciting right fielder Juan Polanco drove in six runs with two triples to right-center field and a towering home run into the left-field darkness.

The Jackals roster includes two familiar names from the major leagues. Mark Lemke, a former second baseman for the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves, is in his rookie season as a knuckleball pitcher. He came off the disabled list Wednesday, so I missed him on the mound.

Batting third is designated hitter “P.J.” Rose, which is a weak disguise for a player who lists his residence as Cincinnati and highest level of experience as “MLB.” The game program confirmed my suspicions: It’s Pete Rose Jr., the Hit King’s son who made a token appearance with the Reds last year after bouncing around in the minor leagues for most of the 90s.

P.J. doubled in two runs in the third, and he looked like Charlie No Hustle coasting into second while the right fielder misplayed the ball in the corner. After reading the games notes, though, I gave him and his sore hamstring the benefit of the doubt.

Dad gave the $2.50 hot dogs an OK – they were hot, but rather small. Dave was disappointed with his Jackals souvenir cup – for $4, he did get a lot of soda, but it came in an uninspiring clear, plastic beaker. It looked like something we used for chemistry labs at Red Bank Regional.

Yogi Berra Stadium had something I’ve not yet seen at minor league parks: the “combo meal.” Chicken, hot dogs and burgers (though no cheese) are all available with fries and a small soda for about $5.50.

The beer selection was again your basic ballpark fare (Bud, Bud Lite, Miller Lite, Michelob) with the pleasant addition of Molson Canadian. And for $6, you can get it in a plastic half-yard “glass” with the Jackals logo, a wonderful way to enjoy minor league ball as long as someone else is driving.

It turned out to be a comfortable night to enjoy a game, with the overcast sky keeping temperatures cool all night. There was some rain during the last inning, but by that time there were so few people left the public-address announcer could have leaned out of the press box and shouted the batters’ names.

Maybe some of Mark McGwire’s moon shots up in Boston brought the rain down.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2004

A new year, a new blog

On August 21, 1983, I went to my first baseball game. Angels vs. Yankees. Uncle Paul, one of those family friends who's not related but you call "uncle" anyway, was so excited to take me. "Aunt" Sandy was pregnant at the time, but I don't think they were telling people yet. I remember driving across the George Washington Bridge and at one point — though I don't know if it was on the bridge — Uncle Paul jokingly let go of the steering wheel and I leaned over to hold the car steady. Sandy let me sit in the front seat. Although we may have been in stop-and-go traffic or Uncle Paul might've been holding the wheel steady with his knee, I felt like I was saving the day, keeping the car from driving off the bridge.

Now I live within minutes of the bridge. I pass it every day going to work, I see it from the riverbank several times a week.

It's been 20 years since my first baseball game, and I've seen more than 60 since.

A coworker introduced me to Retrosheet, a website that archives baseball box scores and I went back to discover my first game.

Then I got hooked. I wanted to find all the games I've seen. My urge for archiving and preserving my personal history overpowered me and I spent as much free time at work as I could trying to remember when I went to games, who I saw, when it was. I remembered hot days at Shea and the Vet, cold days in Wrigley ... and Shea and the Vet. I remembered Ken Griffey Jr.'s first game as a Red against the Mets, Bo Jackson robbing Jack Clark of a home run at Yankee Stadium, Mo Vaughn's first major-league home run (at old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore), Tim Salmon's first bomb (against the Yankees), all my games at Camden Yards and Fenway. I found some easily by those events and others through deduction: I remembered a game when we had seats down the right-field line at Yankee Stadium when Jesse Barfield slid trying in vain to catch a ball hit by the Blue Jays' Kelly Gruber. It turned into a triple. I found the game where Gruber tripled against the Yankees with Barfield in right. Another I tracked down because I remembered the Beach Boys concert we saw after the Yankee game against the Brewers in 1991, on a Sunday. The only Sunday games against the Brewers were June and September; that's easy, it was June.

Other details I remembered after finding the box scores themselves. Bo Jackson robbing Jack Clark of a home run won't show up in the box score, but since I remembered the game was the last before the all-star break in July of the late 80s, I checked the Yankees schedules for when they played Kansas City at home just before a three-day gap in the list of games. Clicking on the box score for the July 10, 1988, game, I noticed that pitcher Ron Guidry appeared for the Yankees as a pinch runner — a detail I remember from that day 16 years ago because of its uniqueness.

Baseball is my first passion, my one true sport. The only professional team to which I can be as attached as I am to my alma mater, Notre Dame, is the New York Mets. Attending Game 5 of the 2000 NLCS when they beat the Cardinals on the strength of Mike Hampton's complete game is the absolute number one professional game I've ever attended. Top of the list. Easily. So at the start of the 2004 season, I decided to transfer my passion and my sporadic writing into something more lasting, more permanent, more open to the world wide web. I started a blog. But I never grew truly comfortable with it; the setup on another site, another host, just didn't fit what I was looking for. I updated infrequently and found, at the end of the season, I wasn't happy with my output. I managed to post daily updates through the postseason, but I realized that it would be much more inviting on another site.

I couldn't wait until Opening Day to start this time. So here I am. I've got three months until the first pitch of the 2005 season, so I'll use that time to transfer over most of the old entries from the other site and then add some new material from my personal archives and former days as a reporter, as well as fresh musings as we head into spring training.

Well, that's my plan, anyway. Let's see how it all turns out.


Friday, December 17, 2004

Holy cow! It’s mini-Yankees

Shad Whiteley delivers a pitch. Posted by Hello

Second in a series.

July 11, 1999

The Pittsfield (Mass.) Mets were in town Tuesday, so the Staten Island Yankees billed it as the “Subway Series of Tomorrow.”

But how many of these players will actually make it to “The Show” and play against each other in a New York battle? Despite the lack of a subway that can get you from Staten Island to Pittsfield, Mass., I thought of it as the “Mini-Subway Series.”

It took 50 minutes to get to the College of Staten Island from Marlboro, where I went to pick up Uncle Paul – not really an uncle of mine, just one of those family friends you call “uncle” because that’s what your parents said. I owed it to him. He and Aunt Sandy took me to my first baseball game when I was 7 years old. It was Yankee Stadium in 1983, but I was more excited to see Reggie Jackson, who was with the California Angels then. Reggie was the only player I knew by name on either team. I still have a Yankee pennant from that day – yellowed from spending 16 years on the walls of my room – though I followed my parents’ influence and became a Mets fan.

The Staten Island Yankees, part of the Class A New York-Penn League that includes the New Jersey Cardinals, will play at the college through the 2000 season while their park is built out by the ferry terminal in St. George. It’s a nice campus, and the parking was free (maybe because we got there two hours before the 7 p.m. game). But for someone who has seen a lot of college baseball games, the setting was not that impressive.

The Yankees do a spectacular job with what they’ve got, though. A huge section of bleachers runs from the right-field foul line into right-center. They’ve also added grandstands past both first and third base to increase the seating capacity to more than 4,500. All the food stands and souvenir tents are lined up behind the first-base grandstand, along with a Port-o-John subdivision that serves as restrooms. It felt like walking along a carnival midway with Nat King Cole’s “Lazy, Hazy Days of Summer,” Sinatra’s “Strangers In The Night” – Paul’s favorite – and contemporary music for the kids coming through the speakers.

Our $8 tickets put us in the third base grandstand, right where the outfield grass meets the infield dirt. We had a perfect view of the field, and – take note – were in the shade of the trees as the sun set behind us. At 6 p.m., the outfield clock showed 101 degrees. And it was humid. By the time the game ended just before 10 p.m., it had cooled down to 89. Beware: It is a college stadium, and every seat is a metal bleacher bench. You get sore. Bring a seat cushion in case you do not catch a free one thrown into the stands.

On the field, the Staten Islanders truly look like Mini-Yankees (Mini-Michael Kaye impression here): “The Yankees are wearing their button-down white home uniforms with the blue pinstripes, the blue interlocking ‘NY’ on the chest and blue numbers – no names – on the back. Blue socks and blue caps, but no white interlocking ‘NY.’ Instead the lids have the Yankees’ famous bat and top hat logo, with ‘Staten Island’ written in the ribbon underneath.”

They even played “New York, New York” when the game was over.

Pittsfield wore black jerseys – somehow black is a traditional Mets color after little more than a season – and gray pants like the ones worn in Flushing in the 80s, with the blue-and-orange stripe down the legs. Also black caps with a “P” and blue bills.

With the Mini-Mets in town, the fans got into the New York rivalry. Throughout the game, the cheers were as loud for the visitors as they were for the home team. Maybe because the Mets provided all the excitement. Yankees starter Shad Whiteley struck out 11 in five innings, but gave up three runs. The Mets went on to win 6-0, but went down in order in the ninth when Marlboro’s Jason Faigin came on to pitch.

The Yankees make sure everyone gets involved, with contests each inning and about a dozen giveaways with signatures on advertisements in the program. The mascot – Scooter, the Holy Cow – and other spent the game in the stands tossing free stuff to the 4,100 sweaty fans.

Paul loved his job as the hot dog taster, going back a few times during the game for the $1.75 franks, which were “nice and soft, bigger than the roll.” Bottled Pepsi and water were $2. I had a couple of slices of (“Staten Island’s own”) Bario’s pizza, $2 each, with whole pies available for the entire family. Most snacks were brought through the stands by vendors, but you’ll have to walk (not far, though) to get any beer. Vendors stationed near the entrances to the stands sell Corona, Coors Light, Beck’s and Rolling Rock for $2.50 to $3.50.

As Nat King Cole sang while we filed out of the park, “You’ll wish that summer could always be here.”

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Friday, December 10, 2004

A visit to Bridgewater the Patriotic thing to do

Behind the plate in Bridgewater. Posted by Hello

Pitchers and catchers begin reporting to spring training on Feb. 16, 2005. That's a little more than nine weeks from now. So starting today, with these 10 Fridays we have between now and then, I've decided to post some columns I wrote a few years ago when I was covering the minor leagues. I've wanted to include them in an electronic archive for posterity, and I figured the offseason was as good a time as any. Actual print dates are listed, but I take no responsibility for the headlines editors gave the columns. They appear as the titles to each entry.

July 4, 1999

Six years ago, New Jersey had no professional baseball teams. Now there are six in the Garden State, with another just over on Staten Island and one coming to Lakewood in 2001. Staff writer Dan [Lastname] will spend a night out at the ballpark each week this summer in search of the best baseball experience this side of Flushing or the Bronx.

Welcome to my dream.

It did not take much for my editors to convince me to take this assignment. In fact, they barely had to ask, and I eagerly accepted. By the end of August, I’ll have visited all six minor league teams in New Jersey, as well as the new Yankees affiliate on Staten Island and one other franchise yet to be determined. Eight weeks, eight parks, eight columns relating my experiences.

It begins with our newest diamond, Bridgewater’s Somerset Ballpark, home of the Somerset Patriots of the independent Atlantic League, a six-team organization with thre of the franchises in New Jersey. All last season and the first month of the 1999 campaign, the Patriots played all their games on the road – 125 straight – while the new brick-faced park was built in Bridgewater.

Certainly, it was a burden to the players to live in motels and ride buses everywhere, but for the fans it was worth the wait.

Getting to the park was no problem; my friend Dave got us the 41 miles from Little Silver (Exit 109) to the parking lot in 45 minutes on a Monday night for a game against the Atlantic City Surf (the third Atlantic League team in the state is the Newark Bears, who will open their stadium on July 16). There is also the convenience of New Jersey Transit’s Northeast Corridor line stopping just beyond the right field wall, if that interchange from the Parkway onto 287 just north of the Driscoll Bridge does not excite you as much as it does Dave and his BMW.

Without advance tickets I went to the window and asked for two of the best available seats.

“O.K.,” said the woman behind the glass, “how about Field Box? Behind home plate, front row?”

I took them.

For $8.50 apiece, Dave and I found ourselves tugging at the protective screen behind the plate, telling each other how cool this was. Put me in the front row at the ballpark, and I regress into immaturity. After the Hillsborough Royals took the field with the Patriots for the National Anthem, sung by the Parsons School Chorus, we settled in for the first pitch from lefthander Justin Jensen. It was a fastball – behind the plate, you see everything. Throughout the game, Dave called out the pitches (“Oh, what a curve!”) while I kept score.

The front-row seats magnified the entire ballpark experience in the cozy stadium with seats down both foul lines and billboards lending color to the outfield wall. The continuous murmur from the crowd provided background for the sounds on the field – the pop of a fastball in the catcher’s mitt, the crack of the bat, the call of the umpire and the communication among the players. Even the labels on the bats were legible from Row 1.

The problem with sitting right behind the plate is those foul balls that hit the screen, which gives at least 12 inches. Lean forward in your seat at the wrong moment, and a ball could still bounce off your face. And watch those drinks you place on top of the wall – a ball high into the screen took ours out; luckily we’d drunk most of them. You don’t think of these things in the upper deck at Shea.

Independent baseball teams usually have a varied group of athletes on the roster. Some are former all-stars or world champions, others are rookies you’ve never heard of.

The most recognizable name on the Somerset roster is Bobby Bonds Jr., the son of the former Giant and brother of three-time MVP Barry. Junior Bonds is a lanky (6-4, 185 pounds) version of his brother with an identical stance, only from the right side of the plate.

The Surf brought with them Ruben Sierra, the former Texas Rangers superstar who could not seem to find as much success in Oakland, the Bronx, Detroit or the Mets farm system as he did in Arlington. When Sierra, batting cleanup, walked in the eighth and trotted down to first base, he became part of the perfect picture of independent league baseball.

Leading off first was Sierra, a former all-star and MVP runner-up who, at 6-1 and 200 pounds, still looks like a major leaguer. Covering the bag for Somerset was Brian Traxler, a 5-10, 240-pound bulldozer who would not look out of place playing in your local firemen’s beer-ball league.

Speaking of beer, this is where Somerset goes big-league. The drafts on tap cover all the Lites – Miller, Bud, Coors and so on – but at heavy prices, $3.50 and $4.25. Sodas are $2, but for $3 you get a cup to keep. The fries and hot dogs (which Dave called, “pretty good”) cost $3. Our favorite were the tri-colored nachos, $3.25 with just a little spice to the cheese. Or if you feel like pizza, flag down one of the Domino’s vendors in the stands.

Next week I’ll cross the Outerbridge Crossing to the College of Staten Island, home – for now – of the Class A Staten Island Yankees.

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