Monday, May 25, 2009

Baltimore

On The Glory of The Real


Oriole Park at Camden Yards
Oriole Park at Camden Yards, 2009

Monday, May 25th, 2009
Toronto Blue Jays vs. Baltimore Orioles
Oriole Ball Park at Camden Yards
Major League Baseball, American League East
Baltimore, MD
1:35 PM

Outside of the Game:
My friend headed home in the morning, so I was on my own for the day. I had breakfast at the hotel again, and then headed out to the game.

Turnpike Sunset
Sunset on the Pike

My trip home after the game was surprisingly uneventful. Although traveling on the NJ Turnpike on the last day of Memorial Day weekend, it was smooth sailing all the way home outside of some congestion right after the shore exits.


The Stadium & Fans:

Home to center, Oriole Park at Camden Yards
Home plate to Center field, Oriole Park at Camden Yards

For those of you not up on your contemporary ballpark history, Oriole Park at Camden Yards was the first in the line of the "next generation" of ballparks. Previous to Oriole Park, the trend in baseball venues for last two decades or so had been towards multi-purpose, suburban stadiums. Because they were multi-purpose stadiums, they were non-optimal for watching a baseball game, as the cavernous seating was remote from the field of play and they tended to look half-full due to the incredibly high seating capacity. Also, because they were suburban and dumped in the middle of nowhere, they were mostly car-only affairs, with people arriving just before the game and leaving right after as there was nothing else to do surrounding the suburban stadium.

Oriole Park was the first new baseball venue to buck that trend. It was a baseball-only park, designed for optimum intimacy and sight lines for baseball, with a commiserate loss in total seating capacity. It was also specifically designed to fit into an urban area, as most ballparks used to be. The resulting success was nothing less than a revolution in ballpark design that has affected the design of nearly every new ballpark since then, touching almost every team in the major leagues.

I had the unfortunate scheduling of seeing most of the copy-cat parks first before seeing the original article, so despite all the raves I had heard about Oriole Park, I was a bit skeptical after seeing the pale imitations. I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised.

There are many things that set the real McCoy apart from its pale imitators. It was very interesting to see the features that were endlessly copied at ballparks across the country in their original, and quite superior, form. The most noticeable of these is the location. The decision to put it downtown in an available urban space feels a lot more natural than it does in its antecedents. The park was wedged into an existing space, and a street and abandoned warehouses were incorporated into the design. Adapting the shape and layout of the park to an existing urban environment feels organic, as opposed to a park such as San Diego, where the incorporation of old industrial buildings seems spurious given the sprawling grounds they clearly had available with which to work.

A street between the old buildings and the new park was closed to car traffic, and becomes the early-entrance gate for the park. A number of shops and concessions line the road, and there are often autograph sessions with current and ex-players also held in the alley. Home runs that made it to the road from ballpark are memorialized with brass markers where they fell, with a special marker on a warehouse wall where Ken Griffey Jr. became the only person to hit a ball that crossed all the way over the street and hit the warehouse wall on the fly.

The closed-off street provides entrance to the center field area for batting practice, while keeping the entrances to the other area of the park closed. The center field porch houses all the team's pennant flags and provides an area for people to watch batting practice. The other wings of the outfield seats are often packed during BP to catch flies or provide an area for kids to beg for balls from the outfielders taking fielding practice. After batting practice, the gates to the other areas of the stadium are opened, allowing fans to get to their seats.

The park is well laid-out, and there doesn't seem to be a bad seat in the house. The seats are all as close as possible to the field, so even the upper-deck seats are relatively proximate to the field. The layout of the stadium just looks and feels correct, and it is this level of symmetry is missing from later imitators. From the detail on the decorative seat grills to the overall layout of the park, it is clear that a lot of actual thought and planning went into the park, and the result is simply excellent.

Also especially nice was the fact that while there was a kids area, with park equipment and the like, there was no area for kids to play video games (baseball or otherwise), nor was their the seemingly ever-present "tiny Wiffle-ball field of the stadium," which I can appreciate in concept, but gets boring in its repetition in nearly every baseball stadium these days.

The only noticeable feature absent from Oriole Park was the "promenade" level, which gives a constant view of the field to people walking to their seats or from the concessions stands. While I can appreciate the idea behind the innovation, I can honestly say that Oriole Park does not suffer in the least by its absence. Also notably missing is the locked-down, upper-class only areas behind home plate that most of the newer parks are implementing. While there is a special air-conditioned section for box seats and the club level, it is easy to circumvent, and does not prevent access directly behind home plate as is the case at Not Shea, for example.

Baltimore fans have gained a reputation as die-hards, and that seems a fairly earned designation. Although the stadium wasn't full, it was a holiday when many people are out of town. And the fans in attendance didn't let something like constant rain from about the fourth inning on dampen their enthusiasm. At most parks, when the rain starts, usually about half of the fans will depart, with progressively more leaving as the game goes on and the rain continues. The Orioles fans retreated to under overhangs, but for the most part, the fans that showed up at the start of the game remained until the end of the game. Much as was the case at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, I can see how fans can keep packing this park even when the product on the field is not quite up to snuff in recent years.


At The Game With Oogie:

Delays

I again had selected mid-level seats to keep me out of the sun, but again, it served the actual purpose to protect me from the rain that fell through the last two-thirds of the game. I once again inadvertently bought tickets in the air-conditioned "premium" area, and outside of being on the third-base side, it was almost the exact seats as the ones we had at Nationals Park the day before.


The Game:

First pitch, Blue Jays vs. Orioles
First pitch, Blue Jays vs. Orioles

The Blue Jays were in first place the day before, but a continued losing streak had dropped them to third in a day, and their woes continued against even the sad-sack Orioles. The Jays jumped out to a lead in the top of the first, but gave it away in the bottom of the inning. The Orioles took the lead in the third against the listless play of the Jays and would put the game out of reach with two runs in the 7th, winning 4-1.

The Scorecard:

Blue Jays vs. Orioles, 05-25-09. Orioles win, 4-1.
Blue Jays vs. Orioles, 05/25/09. Orioles win, 4-1.

The separate scorecard was $1, or included in the $5 full program. It was relatively roomy cardstock fold-out, but the black background made it impossible to write any marginal notes. They also demanded the inclusion of information (in this case, the team records) that they did not provide on the scoreboard, so negative points for that.

Because the Blue Jays used an overshift on the Orioles' Huff (for non-baseball fans, an overshift is moving the infielders from their regular positions to locations stacked on one side of the infield to defend against good hitters who generally cannot hit to the opposite field), I had to come up with some new scoring terminology to record the overshifted position of the 2nd baseman. (I settled on an "o.")

The Accommodations:
I was at home sweet home this night, and ready to dread the workday Tuesday.


2009 The Beltway

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Washington, DC

On True Love

Room service at the Holiday Inn
Room service at the Holiday Inn

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009
Baltimore, MD

Outside The Game:
I am in love with TomTom. There, I said it, and I'm proud to have said it.

I am legendarily bad at navigation while driving. On foot, I am steady and sure, and in Great Britain, for whatever reason, I am a human compass, but in the car, I generally just get lost. But all of that will change now, because of the tiny little navigation robot with the soothing female voice. My father let me borrow his TomTom navigation system for the trip down to Baltimore/DC, and it is the single most useful invention related to driving since the internal combustion engine.

Under normal circumstances, I somehow manage to haphazardly navigate while sneaking glances at now primitive-seeming printouts of Google Maps directions. No more! Now I have a calm female voice calmly tell me what to do, calmly. And if despite this calm help you still miss a turn, it automatically adjusts calmly, and calmly tells you how to fix it. Genius. Whoever developed this system deserves every last penny that they make.

On the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, I began my trip down to Baltimore. I stopped to drop off tickets and Neolithic paper directions to a friend joining me for the game. I stayed for a bit at the graduation party he was attending in Central Jersey, and then went straight down the rest of the way to Baltimore in the late afternoon. Outside of some mild congestion, there were no impediments, and I managed to get to my destination in about three uneventful hours, serenaded by the calming TomTom voice at every juncture that required a turn or merge.

The Accommodations:

Holiday Inn BWI
Holiday Inn BWI

In some preliminary research, I found that the BMI airport hotels in Baltimore are relatively equidistant between Nationals Park and Camden Yards, which made them the perfect place to stay for this endeavor. At BMI, there is a little community of hotels in a special area just outside of the airport, and I stayed at the Holiday Inn in this strange little gated hotel community. It was a nice business hotel undergoing some pre-Summer renovations, so I was able to get an Executive Suite on the cheap. It was also housing many of the teams and families for what appeared to be a junior high school women's soccer tournament, so the halls were filled with "tween" girls, doing whatever it is "tween" girls do. I beat a hasty retreat to my room, ordered up some room service, and then went to bed to get an early start on the next day.



On Bad Associations


Nationals Park
Nationals Park, 2009

Sunday, May 24th, 2009
Baltimore Orioles vs. Washington Nationals
Nationals Park
Major League Baseball, Interleague Play
Washington, DC
1:35 PM

Outside of the Game:
The drive to the game from the hotel was smooth sailing with the TomTom. My last adventure to DC early on at the start of the whole ballpark tour was a lot more haphazard and eventful, but even blowing a turn was no impediment as the TomTom adjusted seamlessly to my stupidity, and got us to the ballpark with time to spare.

After the game, we had an afternoon with no agenda. Since the lot where we were parked was right next door to a subway stop, we took the train down to the Mall to walk around for a while. I've got to say that the DC metro system could not be any more depressing if it tried. The magnetic-strip pay-pass system was state-of-the-art when I last used it in the early eighties on a trip with my family, but outside of the addition of a picture of Obama on the transit cards, they are looking very dated. And the stations look like Bomb Shelters of the Future, as designed in 1967.

In addition to all of this, I had recently completed Fallout 3. It is the deceptively-named fourth title in a series of alternate history, post-apocalyptic PC RPGs, and this last installment took place in post-war Washington DC and its environs. (Frankly, outside of the lack of radioactive ghouls and hulking Supermutants running around, it wasn't all that different. There were even sandbags in some places.) But because of this recent game experience where the runied subway tunnels were a common mode of travel, I found myself reaching for my plasma rifle and a frag grenade to clear out any lurking monsters in the dark below as I went down the transit escalator.

After some mild walking around the largely deserted Sunday-evening Mall, we headed back to the hotel, guided by the dulcet tones of the TomTom, whom we had figured out how to change to a female British accent. We stopped off at a Ruby Tuesdays in the hotel complex for diner and then hit the racks.

At The Game With Oogie:
The aforementioned friend of mine drove down and met me early in the morning, and we headed to the game together. We knew we had seats in the middle level right behind first base, but it turned out we were in one of the "premium" areas that you could only enter with tickets in that section. It had its own air-conditioned hallway and exclusive eating options. The seats were as good as you'd expect, and the shade kept us out of the direct heat in the early afternoon and the light rain that fell towards the end of the game.

The Stadium & Fans:

Center to home at Nationals Park
Center Field to Home Plate at Nationals Park

Nationals Park couldn't help but be an improvement over RFK stadium, which is how I imagined what baseball would be like in Hell (or at least where baseball fans in Hell would be forced to watch games). This being another of the "next generation" parks, it copied a good deal of the standard elements, with an idiosyncratic entrance in center field, a special fan area, bizarre baseball sculpture, "quirky" trash cans, and a play area for the kids that included non-baseball video games for absolutely no discernible reason. An area at the homeplate entrance celebrated the history of baseball in Washington, which is odd, as the team's ownership did everything it could to distance themselves from the history of the Washington Senators during the movement of the club from Montreal. There are also statues of great Senators players at the main center field entrance.

(The stadium is also located right by where an abandoned aircraft carrier would become Rivet City in Fallout 3, in case you're interested.)

Rivet City
No, seriously. That's Rivet City.

I can't help but think that the stadium's marketing people should have run all their naming ideas past a 12 year-old boy. The main fan-centric feature of the park is an area in center field with the unfortunate name of the "Red Porch." It may just be me, but it sounds like an unfortunate euphemism for female complaints. "Now, Scooter, give your mom a wide berth for the next couple of days. She's sitting on the Red Porch." And, in a city full of legislators, and especially given certain recent scandals, one would think they would have reconsidered the name "Senators Sausages" for a vendor.

Perhaps the most interesting Americana blasphemy they have chosen to inflict are the "Rushmores." The Nationals mascots are cartoon versions of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. They participate in the stadium race between innings, and "Teddy" never gets to win because he always stops to beat up the opposition's mascot. Teddy is also getting his own barbecue concession in the stadium, but sadly it was not yet open to visit, if only to identify the meat of the advertised "Rough Rider" barbecue.

All in all, the stadium was a perfectly nice place to watch a game, if a little generic.

This being a game between two nearby teams, about half the crowd was Orioles fans. They have a particular charming blasphemy of their own that they enjoy perpetrating during the National Anthem by screaming the "O" during the line "O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave..." Nearly half the crowd screamed the "O," and I swear I could hear the eyes of the other half rolling.

The Game:
Though billed as the "Beltway Showdown," any game between the luckless Orioles and the hapless Nationals is just not going to be a blockbuster adventure of baseball. Living up to the hype, such as it was, the Orioles and the Nationals both made attempts to squander opportunities more than the opposition, and when seemingly unable to keep from scoring, they then tried just as desperately to give away the lead. The Orioles stumbled out to an early lead that they built on, only to lose it to the Nationals on a two-run home run, gain the lead back, and then lose it again for good.

There were a couple notable elements to the game, however. As this was the first interleague series of the year, I got to see an American League pitcher get his first official at-bats of 2009. The Orioles' Bergesen hit a solid single, and then reached on a shortstop error, before grounding out to third in his last at-bat to end his on-base torrent. There were also a great deal of sky-high pop-ups to the infield, but perhaps the most notable element in the game was easily the stupidest managerial move I've ever seen, and I am a fan of a team that had Bobby Valentine as a manager.

In the bottom of the 7th inning, just after the Orioles regained the lead in the top of the inning, the Nationals staged a mini-rally, getting men on second and third with one out. The Orioles then decided to intentionally walk the bases loaded to pitch to the Nationals' Dunn. This was so incredibly stupid because literally the inning before, Dunn had hit a two-run home run to get the lead back for the Nationals. Dumbfounded fans in the area shared my complete mystification at this move, but before we could properly discuss it further, Dunn promptly hit a grand slam to put the game out of reach, ending in an 8-5 victory. It being one of the Nationals' few wins of the year, it was noteworthy in that regard as well.

The Scorecard:
There was a free half-size give-away at the gate that had a scorecard in it, but the $5 program had a full-size scorecard inside. The scorecard was on good stock paper, with plenty of space, but the print was placed too close to the binding that prevented notes in the margin, compounded by the dark-colored background which made other notes difficult.
 

Orioles vs. Nationals, 05-24-09
Orioles vs. Nationals, 05/24/09. The Nationals won, 8-5.

The Accommodations:
I was again staying over at the Holiday Inn. I took in the breakfast buffet in the morning, arriving just after the last of the tween soccer girl families cleared out. My friend stayed over in my suite on the pull-out couch.


2009 The Beltway