Sunday, August 12, 2007

Minute Maid Makes the Grade

Never judge a book by its cover. Checking out a rooftop view from the Magnolia Hotel, only three or four blocks away, Minute Maid Park stands as an indistinguishable contraption with big green stanchions, easily mistakable for a generic warehouse with the retractable roof closed. Hardly an architectural gem from the exterior, my expectations for Minute Maid declined before I ever step foot in the park.

Thankfully, I am open-minded. The Astrodome replacement, while not in my Top 5, makes up for the external aesthetic disaster with a solid ballpark design, combining unique stadium attributes with modern amenities, while maintaining the old time feel. Only saying it is an upgrade from the Astrodome, which had less character than most dog runs in Manhattan, sells Minute Maid short.

Unlike most modern day stadiums located downtown, the streets surrounding the park hardly seem rejuvenated, contributing to the negative vibe felt from afar. Even upon entering, thankfully to a well air-conditioned concourse away from the 100 degree Texas heat, though I felt an immediate buzz of excitement, the concourses are set too far back from the field, making it impossible to watch the action. Other new stadiums, notably San Diego, remedy this with an array of HDTV’s in the concourse, Houston that memo. A detriment to my typical ballpark frolicking, relegating me to a seat.

In line with new stadium trends, Minute Maid has field level seats behind LF, the Crawford boxes, giving fans a chance to watch from the perspective of an outfielder. The obligatory luxury suites and club seating consume the second tier, providing luxury treatment to high paying customers while generating revenue. Standing-room only tickets, with a dedicated section along the left and left-centerfield walls, provide a more cost effective option. I opted for first row, upper-deck, behind the plate, an awesome view of the entire stadium.

Left field immediately draws attention. A plexi-glass wall with a view to downtown Houston, though the view from my studio apartment might be better, provides the background to a plain, cement, gray wall rising above the standing room section beyond the Leftfield wall. The leftfield view tormented me all game, unable to decide if I liked or not. The flags with retired Astro numbers on the cement wall provided a nice touch, but the bland wall belonged in someone’s backyard with a few rose bushed in front of it, not at a stadium. The plexi-glass enclosure provides natural light into the dome - an underrated feature of modern stadiums that builds an outdoor atmosphere without enduring 100-degree heat - creating an illusion, making the stadium feel bigger.

Putting a replica train with a fake Citgo sign sitting above it fails miserably. Rule number one; do not copy Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, or Yankee Stadium. Rule number two, if you break rule number one, at least make a representative effort. Minute Maid Park failed on both accounts. Regarding the train, a salute to Union Station, a Houston historical landmark, find another location, it simply does not fit.

Complaints aside, the ballpark creates a fun, enjoyable baseball atmosphere. A constant buzz of excitement and anticipation fills the stadium, erupting to near pandemonium when the Astros, even during a subpar season, score. With the park about 75% full for a meaningless August game with Chicago generating near-deafening cheers after home runs by Craig Biggio and Lance Berkman, at different points in the game, I can hardly fathom the noise during the playoffs. I envision the decibel level for a big playoff game in Houston, eclipsing the noise factor even at Yankee Stadium, with an assist from the acoustics of dome stadiums, though Houston can never capture the same energy and feel of the Stadium. ‘Stros fans showed a lot with the passion and noise they brought for a disappointing team, well out of contention.

Tal’s Hill in dead centerfield accentuates what makes baseball stadiums special, uniqueness. An uphill in dead centerfield, with a flagpole in play, making for highlight reel catches and exciting sprints around the bases. No other sport provides teams a chance to customize the playing field, Minute Maid Park takes full advantage. The hand-operated leftfield scoreboard comes straight out of the 1950’s, providing the full box score for all out of town games, a coup for baseball geeks like myself. While the enormous video screen and scoreboard caddy-cornered in right centerfield provide the replays, between inning entertainment, and stats that nobody in the information age can live without. Minute Maid quietly provides the modernization without impeding the game, keeping the scoreboards and major advertisements distant from the field, out of mind, out of sight. Of course, lest I forget, the Chick-Fil-A “Fowl” Pole, one indelible mark of the creative advertising at any cost generation we live in.

A Craig Biggio homerun, a few pints, or plastic cups, of Shiner Bock, the sights and sounds of Minute Maid Park, what better Astro experience. To top it off, four more converted fans, colleagues I dragged to the game, who knew more about Luke Skywalker than Luke Scott, and probably prefer staring at blank walls than watching baseball, now anxiously awaiting their next ‘Stros game a Minute Maid.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Perspective and Continued Debate

With one sweet lefty swing, six months of controlled chaos ended. Bonds breaking the record became inevitable when the Giants finally agreed to re-sign him, after briefly toying with the idea of letting him walk. All the melodramatic subplots - Selig, Aaron, crowd reaction, opposing pitchers – provided the only suspense. Tuesday night the story played out, a few days leaves us with perspective, and unfinished debates.

After intermittently following Bonds for over a week, Selig missed the historic moment, sending a MLB official in his place. When he finally decided to attend the games, Selig received wide commendation for “doing the right thing”, but his actions and commentary during the pursuit lacked sincerity. Selig became a spectacle to himself. The weekend prior to the record-breaker Selig was quoted as calling his travel following the home run chase “herculian”. Excuse me, but when did watching baseball games become a super-human task. Selig’s other excuse, work responsibilities requiring his presence in the NY office, also reeks of falsity. If thousands of road warriors find ways to work away from the office, I believe the commissioner of MLB can receive the accommodations to do the same.

Selig should have been at AT&T Park. He should have attended every game, even if it lasted the entire season. Once you commit to acknowledging the record, follow through to completion. Enough negativity surrounded the pursuit, without Selig adding to it. Maybe San Francisco was a better place on August 7 with Selig far away. His reaction in San Diego to homerun 755, off a convicted steroid user, was borderline morbid, standing with hands firmly in pocket and an uninterested, gloomy facial expression. The act appeared contrived. If Selig opposed the record as strongly as his actions show, he needs to speak out, not attend the games take a firm stance. In a fitting conclusion, Selig issued a statement both congratulating Bonds, and implying the Mitchell investigation will dictate the historical context of the record. Another case of Bud tacitly playing to both sides. The commissioner needed to act more decisively, take a stance, and remain genuine, his half-hearted effort failed.

The one figure the public embraced and sympathized with during the chase, Hank Aaron, turned from hero to hypocrite with one taped message. A few months ago, when asked about attending the record breaking moment, Aaron notably proclaimed he did not even know how to spell his (Bonds) last name. Aaron further stated he would not be at the game, maybe not even the country. Hammerin’ Hank essentially threw Bonds under the bus, calling the record tainted.

Fast forward to Tuesday night, after Bonds triumphantly crosses the plate, soaking in ecstasy from the hometown crowd, all eyes shift to the oversized scoreboard behind CF, up pops Hank Aaron. The now former homerun king stared directly into the camera, not unlike Rafael Palmeiro in front of Congress, and in his deep Southern drawl, congratulated Bonds on the great achievement. Aaron had all the reason in the world to refuse to legitimize the record due to the allegations swirling around Bonds, but how can he then proceed to send a heartfelt public congratulatory message only weeks after calling the record tainted? I respect everyone’s right to an opinion - particularly regarding such an open-ended issue still lacking all the facts – however, I find no dignity with double talk. If Aaron truly felt Bonds cheated, and he said as much, he should have kept his word and not appeared on that scoreboard.

Possibly due to the inordinate side stories, or the uncertain legal status potentially altering its historical context, or the sheer prolonged hype the chase received, it lacked that spine-tingling sensation of historical baseball moments. Two nights earlier, even with Glavine watching from the bench, I had the feeling when Ruben Gotay tossed to Carlos Delgado for the last out of win number 300. Watching Glavine emerge from the dugout trying to withhold almost 20 years of emotion gave me goose bumps, as I flashed through classic Glavine moments in my head.

Bonds broke the most historic record in sports, only the third homerun leader in over 80 years, surely an historical moment. Rather than celebrating an elite career, attention focused on the controversy, the legitimacy of the accomplishment. Unfortunately, the story remains unfinished since we await the conclusion of the Mitchell investigation, along with Grand Jury testimony that may indict Bonds, officially marring the record. This occasion usually yields a call from the President of the US, particularly one so immersed in baseball. Given the circumstances, forget it. Half the country lost interest, or rooted against Bonds, taking that special feel away for most.

With all the opportunity in the world to play the villain, Bonds actually handled the whole situation splendidly, making others affiliated with the situation look even worse. He said the right things publicly, never criticized the people or fans that slammed him like a piñata, outside of Bob Costas, all the while continuing to play at a high level, without any supporting cast to note. If Barry only displayed this public persona the past ten years, rather than a grumpy surliness, the public would be embracing him. Too little, too late.

Time will tell how Bonds we remember Bonds blast 10, 25, even 50 years from now. Congress may expose Bonds as a cheater, immediately asterisking the record, though he clearly would not be alone. In less than ten years, he may watch A-Rod smash his record at a considerably younger age. Anything remains possible under this cloud of uncertainty.

…On a side note, always an interesting side note, the play-by-play call of the moment. The home radio, home television, and ESPN broadcast, all handled the occasion well, with each broadcaster remaining under control, sticking with their traditional homerun call, describing the moment appropriately, and providing a nice balance of excitement and professionalism. Broadcasters have a knack for going way over the top, picture John Sterling calling the homerun. Jon Miller was clearly more excitable than Dave O’Brien, but that goes with being the home broadcaster opposed to the neutral national broadcast. My guess, we hear Duane Kiper if Visa ever makes a Bonds commercial.

…and if Visa does make a commercial about the record homerun, it should end with the infamous Met fan emerging from the right-centerfield scrum with the famous ball. One $20 bleacher seat, one ball worth over $500,000, now that is priceless.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

One to Go

A television armed with picture in picture, trips to the ballpark, a laptop tuned to MLB TV, live Internet gamecasts, a cell phone ready to dial, and of course the trusty AM-FM tuner - all in the name of baseball history. To honestly say, “I saw Bonds hit 756”, or 7 years down line when A-Rod chases Bonds’ all-time homerun record, to remember watching Rodriguez’ milestone 500th blast live, or waiting for Tom Glavine’s reaction as he emerges from the dugout following the final out of win 300.

No matter where you stand on the steroid issue affecting the legitimacy of Bonds’ pending record, even the casual observer tunes in anticipating history. Cheer or boo A-Rod in the past, put postseason failures and big money contracts aside to appreciate possibly the most talented baseball player of this, or any, generation reach the benchmark for power hitters at a younger age than any player ever, including the Sultan of Swat and alleged Sultan of Shot. Similar to his days in Atlanta, playing wingman to Madduz and Smoltz, Glavine flies under the radar amid the fascination with homeruns. The classy, dignified lefty, receives less fanfare than his record chasing brethren, but will hold no less exclusive place in history, possibly becoming the last pitcher in this generation to win 300.

Never before has baseball witnessed three major milestones on the same day. Frank Thomas and Craig Biggio pulled a double earlier this season, Gwynn, Boggs, and McGwire went back-to-back-to-back days a decade ago. On Tuesday night, baseball fans scrambled to catch every at-bat and every pitch, while all three, unsuccessfully chased history. If that excitement did not get the blood flowing, Tuesday also marked the non-waiver trade deadline. For one day, the information overload fans deal with in the digital age could not keep up with the news and stories. Without sounding too giddy and corny, baseball is great.

At the same time, the drama is all about stats, and not at all about stats. Unlike any other sport, statistics drive baseball, and the milestones signify reaching a specific number, forever immortalized in baseball annals. More than stats, these chases are about the game, the history, the moment. Perhaps thanks to the controversy, everyone seems more intrigued to see what happens when Bonds hits the magical 756.

Location remains a major storyline. Will it take place in San Francisco, or on the road? Prevailing opinion says Bonds needs to hit the record-breaker at home to avoid a negative historic moment, some analysts go as far as saying the Giants, and possibly even MLB, will rig the proceedings to avoid it occurring on the road. Associating a negative fan reaction to a highlight clip bound to appear on highlights for years to come must scare baseball, but benching Bonds in road games chews at the integrity of the game. With division rivals San Diego, Los Angeles, and Arizona in a heated pennant race, removing the Giants best hitter for select games unfairly sways the balance of power. Thankfully, Bonds started each road game thus far.

Breaking the record away from San Francisco would only intensify the drama. Will the fans boo, will anyone throw debris on the field or try running on the field, and do the opposing players shake his hand while rounding the bases ala a not yet indicted Mark McGwire in 1998 after smashing Maris’ single season homerun record, more storylines than the average soap opera.

Even simple details sound intriguing. How will Bonds react, in the batters box, rounding the bases, and crossing the plate? Will teammates mob him at home plate, or have a subdued reaction? What single moment will

A-Rod elicits feelings of jealousy, thanks to his enormous contract, and occasional outright dislike, with his penchant to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and to underperform in clutch situations. Listen to the Yankee Stadium crowd each time Rodriguez comes to bat, any question fans put all feelings aside in favor of 500? Without stopping to realize it, we have the privilege of watching one of the great all-around baseball players ever. Number 500 will generate October-like electricity at the Stadium, and send chills up your spine no matter where you are.

The onset of small ballparks, watered down pitching, and other notable factors dramatically increasing power numbers, and three other active players bearing down on 500 homeruns, jeopardize the exclusivity of the club going forward. Less than a decade down the road 500 homeruns may not remain the benchmark for elite power hitters, or lead to automatic hall of fame entry. While Jim Thome chasing 500 brings along a debate on the merits of the magic number, A-Rod is different. Rodriguez can arguably retire as one of the top five players of all-time, and is on pace, yes I hate that phrase, to shatter Bonds’ final number. If a 22 member fraternity was not exclusive enough, having turned 32 years old last week, A-Rod will become the youngest to gain entry, the best of the best.

Despite a recent spate of 300-game winners, the species threatens to go extinct as we embark on the generation of pitch counts, specialized relief pitchers, and five man rotations. Glavine will reach the milestone with the least publicity and notoriety of almost any pitcher. He lacks the consecutive Cy Young’s and multiple years of shear dominance of Maddux, and the strikeouts and drama surrounding Roger Clemens, the only two pitchers to reach the achievement in the past 27 years.

Never dominating, rarely, if ever, considered the best pitcher on his own team, never mind the league, Glavine stayed under the radar relying on a perfect change-up, impeccable pitch location, and unmatched consistency, to keep batters off balance for over twenty years. The milestone win will not be a scintillating 15 strikeout performance, or a one-hit gem, expect another quality start in a long line of them, 6 or 7 IP, maybe 1 or 2 earned runs, and lots of frustrated hitters wondering how they could not hit an 80-85 mph fastball.

The model of stability, Glavine started at least 29 games each season since 1988, except the strike-shortened year, posting an ERA under four in all but three of those seasons, and collecting two Cy Young awards. One edge Glavine has over both Bonds and A-Rod, an unforgettable clutch playoff performance and World Series ring. The 1995 World Series MVP stifled Cleveland in Game 6, twirling a gem for the ages, a one-hit shutout over eight innings in the 1-0 clinching victory.

Unlike Bonds and A-Rod, barring the rare complete game, Glavine will not even be on the field when he officially reaches the milestone. The homerun can happen at any moment, on any given pitch, blink and you miss it. The suspense for Glavine’s win will build over nine innings, the level of drama depending on the score, and as if the lefty needed the reminder, his teammates need to help. Tuesday night Glavine departed with 300 in sight, before Guillermo Mota, convicted steroid user, blew the lead. A-Rod and Bonds control their fate, at least when pitchers challenge them. Where else are paths to achievement within the same sport so divergent.

Steeped in history and nostalgia, every new major moment in baseball presents interesting links to the past. Surrounded by controversy, including the debate on Commissioner Selig’s attendance, and the legitimacy of the record in the so-called Steroid Era, Bonds hitting 755 or 756 during Hall of Fame weekend, where two immortal, classy players who signify everything right with baseball entered Copperstown, would have created a major distraction and PR nightmare for baseball. With no control over the situation, it worked out, no homerun, all eyes remaining on Copperstown; baseball always seems to work out.

Bonds had an opportunity to create great historical symmetry with Aaron’s record breaker, off Al Downing of the Dodgers with legendary Vin Scully broadcasting the game. Three games in LA, but no homeruns, an ironic twist of fate missed. Wherever, and whenever Bonds hits the next two homeruns, a record broken only once in over 75 years stands to fall, put that in historical perspective.

In New York, if A-Rod connects during the homestand, he becomes the first to reach 500 at Yankee Stadium, the unofficial baseball cathedral, since Mickey Mantle in 1967, and becomes only the third to achieve the milestone in Yankee pinstripes, joining Mantle and Ruth.

Baseball holds a special place in public lore, forever America’s favorite past time. While extra hype surrounds these historical chases, the purity of the game shines through. Everything circles back to the crack of the bat, the sweet swing followed by the reaction in the batters box and an exhilarating trot around the bases, officiating the milestone by touching the plate, followed by teammate reception, and the curtain call to thank the fans. For Glavine, the slow walk off the mound after handing the ball the bullpen, watching his reaction during the final agonizing outs, and then greeting his teammates and the pitcher who finished off his 300th win. What single moment will stand in history, the snapshot forever immortalized? How will the broadcaster blessed with the opportunity call the historical moment, knowing everyone will listen to the replay forever? Many questions, tons of intrigue, uncontrollable anticipation – a special time that no other sport can duplicate, proving again why baseball is the greatest sport.