The Grand Tour, part one

I won’t say I needed a vacation, but I certainly got one.

It was March when my best friend Paul Golba (he has a co-writer credit on one of my earlier articles, so you actually kinda know him) suggested a baseball holiday. He’d had this idea floating through his brain for some time and finally saw an opportunity to make it reality. We’d spend several days crossing the country, taking in a series of big-league baseball games.

It should be no surprise that I liked this idea. At his behest, I worked up some scenarios that we could follow. Since we live several states apart—he in New Jersey, I now in North Carolina—they all involved my flying up to my old stomping grounds first before setting out, to be dropped off in Asheville once we were done. Four scenarios, one for April and three for June, came of my work, the most ambitious getting us all the way to Chicago for a White Sox night game followed by day ball at Wrigley Field.

So of course we chose Scenario E.

One of Paul’s business trips cropped up, sending him out to Kansas City in mid-April. (He’s seen more Royals games than most people would admit to, plus some games by the minor-league Kansas City T-Bones. Yes, they like meat in KC. And so does Paul.) After an evening of scrambling that would make MLB schedulers proud, we had a brand new plan. He’d fly over to Asheville after his business was done, we’d start and end our tour there, and he’d wing home.

The overture would be a Wednesday minor-league game in Asheville just as a homestand was ending. After one evening attending a concert in Nashville (no relation to baseball), we’d hit Cincinnati on Friday night, Pittsburgh on Saturday evening, Philadelphia for the national game on ESPN, then Baltimore on Monday.

My original name for the tour concept was Operation Market-Garden 2, though once I realized how esoteric World War II references were getting, I settled for The Grand Tour. Once a firm route was sketched out, though, Paul insisted on calling it the Grand West Virginia Encirclement. And so history will record it. The article titles won’t, though: it’s kinda long for that.

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Circle me, Bert Shane!

Yes, as if it weren’t already obvious, I’m telling you all about the trip. I couldn’t participate in an ambitious baseball tour like this without sharing it with the readers of The Hardball Times.

Besides, it provided a needed perspective. It can be too easy to write about the statistical minutiae of baseball and forget that behind all the numbers, there’s a game that exists to be enjoyed. If my reports go long on the enjoyment and short on the inside-baseball details, consider it a balancing of the books.

We planned to do a little more than watch ballgames, but apart from the Nashville connection, we would not be straying far from the central focus. Most of our destinations had obvious baseball-related side trips available to us, and our itinerary allowed us enough time to fit them in.

Paul had one additional matter planned. Thinking ahead to the ballpark food we’d be having for dinner in Asheville, he told me I would have to eat and rate hot dogs at all the parks we visited. People are good at thinking up things that I have to do; I am less good at telling said people to get lost. So among everything else, you will be getting my entirely subjective opinions of ballpark franks from across our tour.

And it’s time to begin that tour, right at home.

Game 1: Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Hickory Crawdads at Asheville Tourists
McCormick Field, Asheville, North Carolina
Attendance: 1,620

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The author, at McCormick Field. Third base!

The Asheville Tourists are a Single-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies and are the defending South Atlantic League champions. They reached that summit under the helmsmanship of manager Joe Mikulik, in his 13th season running the club.

Mikulik has a certain YouTube-fueled reputation for on-field eruptions, stuff to rival the great hot-headed managers like Earl Weaver, Lou Piniella, and Ozzie Guillen. True instances of these meltdowns are actually pretty rare for his 13-year stretch, but you can look them up and be entertained (or possibly disgusted) all the same.

With a fresh championship under his belt, Mikulik decided he had earned his way up the ladder and promptly petitioned the Rockies organization for a promotion. The reply, three days after the clinching game, was to fire him.

Amazingly, this news didn’t get out in public for several weeks afterward. By the time Asheville residents knew the winningest manager in SAL history (939-860) was gone, he was long gone. He finally fetched up as a roving scout for the Texas Rangers organization.

The Hickory Crawdads are a Single-A affiliate of the Texas Rangers. As part of his new job, Mikulik came to town on April 17 to scout the Crawdads-Tourists game.

As soon as the Tourists learned of this, they arranged a Joe Mikulik Night. General admission tickets were offered for $1.20, after the number 20 Mikulik wore. (I feel lucky they weren’t charging 20 bucks.) At a pre-game ceremony, team president Brian DeWine (of the Ohio political family) presented Mikulik his championship ring and a large framed photograph of his 2012 Tourists.

Mikulik’s speech afterward was no study in eloquence, except for the genuine feeling it showed. Peppered with multiple “humbleds,” it showed a much different side of him than anyone has seen on his notorious videos. It was a much better send-off for the man, and Paul and I were lucky to have started off the tour with it.

McCormick Field is one of the oldest professional baseball parks still in use. The stands are nothing exceptional, but the thick stands of trees down the left-field line and beyond the outfield walls make for very pretty views, even in an April when the last winter snow is just three weeks past. The field itself showed those effects the night we attended, the grass still mostly yellow except for a strip of green fronting the right-field wall.

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Right field at McCormick. Not green, but arguably a monster.

McCormick is decidedly a hitter’s park. The elevation is over 2,000 feet, and the park itself is very cozy, with 326/370/373/320/297 measurements to the walls. The right-field fence is 36 feet high.

Think a reverse Fenway Park and you won’t be far off, though if you know your baseball history, a closer comparison would be the Baker Bowl. McCormick even has the corrugated-metal walls all around the outfield that Baker Bowl had in right. Wall-banging hits are a literal thing in Asheville, clearly audible.

McCormick’s Park Factor is the highest in the Sally League, at 118 for the 2010-12 seasons. If there’s any place in this league for players to learn what it’ll be like playing at Coors Field, this is it.

I have no idea whether the Rockies chose their Single-A affiliate with this in mind, but any analytics division worth its salt would advise them not to switch. Current manager Fred Ocasio has been complaining about McCormick Field’s effect on his pitchers. Ignore him. They have to learn some time.

Comparing Wieners: Footlong from Sausage Shack ($6.50)
“That’s not a hot dog,” said Paul, “that’s a commitment.” That it was. It had good girth to match its length and was notably grayer than a standard hot dog, edging toward bratwurst territory. The taste was reminiscent of brats, as well, strong and flavorful, with a nice moderate amount of juice. Even accounting for the high price, this was an excellent hot dog. The major-league parks had their work cut out right from the start.

The Tourists have two mascots. The older one is Ted E. Tourist, a bear. (Ted E., nudge-nudge.) The newer one fits with a logo change made two years back, going from a tree-lined mountain range to an anthropomorphic smiling Moon, complete with ballcap and Harry Caray-like glasses. Why a Moon for the Tourists? I have no idea. The resulting mascot is Mr. Moon. Kinda like Mr. Met, only with a Harry Caray-impersonating large natural satellite instead of a baseball.

It isn’t minor-league baseball without between-inning entertainment, and our game in Asheville was packed. A possibly incomplete list of diversions for the night includes:

The Pony Race. Kids on foam horses.
The Frozen T-shirt Race. Two adults race to unfold and put on frozen T-shirts. Often good for embarrassing people.
The T-shirt Slingshot. Standard stuff for minors and majors alike. I nearly nabbed the first one.
The Tighty-Whitey Race. Three kids per pair of super-sized shorts. “My first giant underwear race,” Paul observed. “One of those special moments.”
The Mascot Race. Ted E. Tourist races a five-year-old around the bases, going in opposite directions. The kid won easily, even slow-rolling Ted E. by easing up near the plate. The PA announcer declared the showboating tyke “ready for the NFL.”
The First Restoration Services Race. A carpet-restoration sponsor dresses racers up as various threats to one’s carpeting: fire, water, and green mold. No, I’m not kidding. Green mold won.
The Asheville Dental Tooth Olympiad. Kids dressed as a tooth, toothbrush, and smiling face run, do push-ups, skip rope, etc.
The Charlotte Street Computers Pin the Tail on the Technician contest. Ted E. completely fails to evade a theoretically-blindfolded kid. Why don’t they humiliate Mr. Moon this way?
The Kia Soul Squishy Ball Challenge. Three adult contestants try to throw a ball into the trunk of a Kia. If it goes in and doesn’t bounce out, you win. The first two missed, and then the assistant for the event, missing her cue, slammed the trunk. And they couldn’t get it back open again. The Kia drove off, and the third contestant won by default.

Okay, the game

We lucked out with Mikulik, but the Tourists themselves were another matter. We missed the rotation slot of first-round pick Eddie Butler, who had been dominant in his first two games with Asheville before looking mortal in the third. (He has since thrown an eight-inning one-hitter.) Third-rounder Tom Murphy, who has both power and more aggressive speed than you’d expect from a catcher, was on the DL.

Weather was not the best. There was a slight occasional drizzle, and temperatures were decidedly cool by the end. This turned out to be an omen, but we didn’t know that at the time.

Hickory and Asheville traded runs in the first. Crawdad Joey Gallo (a first-round pick last year) hit a thunderous home run to right-center. “Maybe we should’ve parked elsewhere,” Paul said. The Tourists’ run came on a walk, single, then a little liner that pitcher Sam Stafford somehow dodged leaning over backward (“the full Matrix on that one.”) for a 6-3 RBI groundout.

Stafford’s heat was sitting 88, touching 90 (if you trust a minor-league park’s radar gun), and his control was poor. He walked three men in the first and one each in the next two innings before being hooked. He yielded only the one run, thanks partly to Asheville’s baserunning misadventures.

In the second, with Jose Briceno on second and one out, Kyle Von Tungeln singled to right and went for second on the throw home. Briceno held up at third as the catcher moved up to take the throw and pegged it to second. Von Tungeln was out on the play, and Briceno didn’t go for home. He never got off third base. The Tourists gave away another baserunner the next inning, as Rosell Herrera was gunned down at second trying to advance on a pitch in the dirt.

Scoring resumed in the fourth. Hickory plated its first on a scorching double to right that first baseman Drew Beuerlein (cousin of one-time NFL quarterback Steve) nearly picked off. Another came in on Jorge Alfaro‘s wall-banger to left. Asheville got both of them back on a walk, steal, line-hugging double, sacrifice, then a ball that ate up third baseman Gallo and went right by him but charitably was ruled a single. Ryan Rua made a nifty sliding nab to start a 4-6-3 double play and snuff the rally.

The Tourists pressed the attack in the fifth. A leadoff walk led to a sac bunt to the left side, only Francisco Sosa beat it out. Derek Jones popped up a bunt down the third-base line, and pitcher Alving Mejias‘ dive couldn’t snare it. Bases loaded, nobody out, and a cowbell-wielding fan by the Asheville dugout got working in earnest. Beuerlein went down looking. Julian Yan‘s grounder to third looked like the end, but the relay to first, hurried by Yan’s speed, went wide. Two runs scored, making it 5-3 in favor of Asheville.

Tourists starter Jonathan Vargas had come out in the fifth, having given up three runs in 4.2 innings, so he wasn’t in line for the win. He had hit 90 consistently and touched 93. His Three True Outcome numbers weren’t too good, with a homer, two walks, and three strikeouts.

Then came the seventh, the Krispy Kreme Hitless Inning. If the Tourists allowed Hickory no hits that frame, everyone in attendance would get a coupon for a free Krispy Kreme doughnut. Our hopes ended with a swift bang: the sound of a 1-1 pitch whacking off the center-field wall for a Jordan Akins double. Akins would pay for depriving us. With one out, he went for third on a grounder ahead of him and perished on a 6-5 play. Well, he’s got a few levels to learn better.

At the stretch, there was no “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” The Boston Marathon bombings were two days old, and a rendition of “God Bless America” took its place. It occurs to me that a whole generation of people now associate that song with mass murders. That cannot be good, can it?

Top of the eighth, and Asheville reliever Rayan Gonzalez is hitting 95. The Crawdads are less impressed than the speed board: a walk and a long double bring them within one, 5-4. Another long fly moves the runner to third, but he’s stopped there.

Top of the ninth, and closer Raul Fernandez comes in. He hits 97 on the gun and has done better at other parks with possibly friendlier radar. Paul noted the complication: “Throwing hard, but throwing straight. Kyle Farnsworth territory.”

If Kyle Farnsworth’s territory is beyond the left-center wall at McCormick Field, he’s right. Akins parked an offering there, and it was a tie game. Fernandez slammed the barn door after the equine had absconded. The Crawdads’ pitcher, southpaw Alexander Claudio, struck out the Tourists in order in his third inning of work. No situational lefty, he. On to free baseball!

In for Asheville came Patrick Johnson. He struck out Nick Williams, but then Gallo yanked one deeeep to right. The only question was whether it would stay fair … and there was no question. It was Gallo’s second round-tripper, to go with two walks and a fly-out that I presume was awfully deep, too. Looks like the Rangers used that first-round pick wisely.

Johnson plunked the next batter, but Rua got thrown out stealing, and Alfaro went down swinging. Asheville had three outs left.

Sosa made a promising start, lining one through the pitcher’s glove and legging it out for Asheville’s first hit against Claudio. (He was now in his fourth inning. You don’t see this too often, especially in close games, but it’s apparently his role. Nine innings in three previous appearances, none of them starts. I’m liking it.) With a steal threatening, Claudio made a wild pickoff throw, and Sosa took second.

Manager Fred Ocasio had called four sacrifice bunts in the game, two of which had gone for singles. This looked like a possible fifth, and five-batter Derek Jones had bunted before (the little bloop hit), so he could execute if asked. This time, Ocasio did not ask. Jones popped out to center. Then Beuerlein struck out swinging, and Asheville’s last chance came up in the person of Yan.

This did not inspire confidence. Yan was 0 for 3 with a walk and a strikeout and had been looking overmatched. As hacky as he was, it looked like an all-or-nothing at-bat, with the odds heavily stacked on the nothing side.

Claudio had worries in both directions. He’d look to second, look home, look to second, look home, look to second, as the boos mounted. “Split the difference,” said I. “Throw to first.”

No such luck. He got Yan swinging. Four innings, five strikeouts, and just the infield hit counting against him. Yes, John Barten, pitcher wins may be archaic, but sometimes they actually earn them.

This fun game was an auspicious beginning to the Great West Virginia Encirclement, apart from the hometown team losing. Then again, they did that a lot early last season yet wound up with the champion’s trophy in their hands, so I wouldn’t worry too much.

Tomorrow: Cincinnati, and the best cynical corporate sponsorship ever.

Note: future installments will be/are available here, here, here, and here.

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Comments

  1. chuck said...

    joe mikulik was a replacement player for the cleveland indians in 1994.  i saw them at the exhibition game at jacobs field against the mets.  he actually spent some time in the cleveland minor league system if my memory is correct.

  2. Paul G. said...

    For the record, the “commitment” quote was from the guy behind me in line who decided better of the foot-long and went with the kielbasa.  I didn’t get his name.  Personally, I figure that finding the right hot dog is like finding the right woman: you make that commitment and never regret it.  Of course, with hot dogs it helps that the commitment lasts until the end of digestion.

    I’d also like to note that the T-Shirt Slingshot was a bit overpowered for A ball.  At least two of Ts ended up going over the roof.  I suppose that’s better than aiming too low and line driving someone in the kisser, but disappointing nonetheless for those of us who relish free souvenirs.  Whether the Ts made the concourse or are currently languishing in a gutter is unknown at this time.

  3. Shane Tourtellotte said...

    Keith:  Well, what team has ever given out numbers according to fielding position?  It started out by batting order long ago, which is possible here even if you don’t see many first basemen leading off.  I think the maker was looking to include non-fans, who wouldn’t necessarily know scoring conventions, in on the joke.

    And here I thought it was Baseball Prospectus with the department called “Overthinking It.”  I’ll be quiet now.

  4. TR said...

    The Park was rebuilt some years ago, the original park was used in the film “Bull Durham” where Crash Davis hits his “record” HR after being released by The Bulls. Babe Ruth played a game at McCormick before he ate to many hotdogs on the train on the Yankees spring training tour up to New York. Sounds like a great trip minor league baseball is an american gem.

  5. Paul G. said...

    The IDONTKNOW jersey is part of a set that also includes WHO and WHAT versions, numbered 1 and 2 respectively.  So that is the numbering convention being followed.  Personally, if I had to choose I would want a WHY or BECAUSE.  Sadly, I do not believe such creatures exist at this time.  Alas, it appears I am a niche market.

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