Friday, December 17, 2010

Mexicali

An Introduction:

Having seen every major league stadium and starting off on all the Japanese stadiums, I thought I had few baseball mountains left to climb, until I started to think about it. Unlike those people with birthdays during the regular season, my parents saw fit to hobble me with one in December. This year, I decided to finally get over that hump and see a professional game on my birthday. This left me with two practical options: Mexico, and the newly christened Australian league. Australia, while having the benefit of speaking some manner of English, was a 22-hour plane ride and several thousand dollars away, not to mention the impracticality of a short-duration excursion there. So Mexico it would be.


On The Things We Can't Control


Flight
Delays, delays

Thursday, December 16, 2010
San Diego, CA


Outside of the Game: An open letter --

Dear Scientists Working on Transporters: Hurry the hell up already, because having airplane travel as the only reasonable way to cross long distances is just not working out.

I suppose I should focus on the positives. I actually got to Newark Liberty Bald Eagle God Bless America Airport on time; I didn't get Freedom Groped passing through security; and I was at the main Continental terminal, so I was able to have a nice sit-down breakfast instead of scavenging a beat-up bagel from a lone terminal concession cart at the satellite terminals.

That positivity out of the way, my outgoing airplane was delayed getting to the gate because the flight ahead of us was delayed in leaving. This lead to a late boarding of a full flight, which made us lose our departure slot, which put us in the air nearly an hour late.

And then there was the purgatory that is other passengers. There was a pair of people who wanted to sit together near me, so I swapped my aisle seat with aisle seat in the row behind me where one of the women was sitting. Not a problem as of yet, except that these two women were junior female royalty of a hyphenated ethnology and a monotheistic persuasion. In addition to talking constantly and loudly for the entire flight and calling the flight crew to their seats to demand and/or complain about something every half hour, the one with whom I switched seats almost immediately performed the knee-destroying sudden full recline of her seat.

Alright.

I decided to try to be civil. I asked her if she wouldn't mind please moving her seat up a little. She said it was her seat and if they weren't supposed to recline, they wouldn't recline. I pointed out that it wasn't, in fact, her seat, and she has the choice of moving her seat up, or I would call over the already-sick-of-her flight crew to reclaim my proper seat.

If looks could kill... well, I'd have already killed her. But she positively scowled fury at me, and then even more loudly than normal talked to her companion about how rude some people were. But she moved the seat up.

There was no meal on the flight, and that was a detail to which I probably should have paid more attention. Under normal circumstances, I most likely would have been okay, but with the delays, I was getting pretty hungry five hours in. Unfortunately, it seems most people didn't have breakfast and quickly bought up all the boxed snacks and lunches available, leaving me to sit there and think of the folly of my ways for the remainder of the flight. The thoughts were not particularly filling.

So it was of great interest to me once we landed to discover that the plane occupying our assigned gate was having mechanical problems of an indeterminate source. We got some quality tarmac-sitting time as the brain trust of the Continental maintenance crew got to work on the problem. Another hour later, we finally got to the gate, and a full planeload of surly Easteners made their way quickly out into sunny joy of San Diego.

It was nearly two in the afternoon local time when I got out, and I decided to get to my rental car and hotel before eating, because that's the kind of decision you make when you aren't thinking clearly because you're weak from hunger. I got the shuttle to the Budget rental office, picked up my car, and spent the requisite ten minutes trying to figure out how it worked. Once on my way, it was a quick drive to the hotel, which mercifully had a restaurant next door.

Rental car
Sensible

After throwing my stuff in my room, I went and got... lunch, I suppose. It was a french dip roast beef sandwich with fries, whatever its nomenclature, and it was the best whatever that meal was that I ever had in my life.

After what we'll call lunch, I decided to drive down to the city proper to see what I could see. I immediately found something out about San Diego: all the cultural attractions seem to close down at 4. I parked down by the piers to find that everything was closed or closing. Seeing this was going to lead nowhere, I drove over to the Gaslamp District, which was more night-friendly.

I spent a couple of hours just walking around and working up an appetite again. One of the first places I went was down to Petco Park to see if they were offering stadium tours during the off-season. There was only one customer service booth open at that hour, with one guy behind the counter. I went in and asked him about tours, and he told me the schedule and gave me a pamphlet. For some reason, we got talking about the weather, and he asked me where I was from, and when I told him, he said his sister also lived in Hoboken. It turns out that his family is from New Jersey, and he said he was originally from Clifton, and I said I was originally from Clifton, and we had that small world moment. He did a hitch in the corps and ended up in San Diego, and he and his wife decided to stay out there after he got out.

Gaslamp
Gaslamp

After that, I was just wandering around all over the place, down to the Convention Center and then up and around Gaslamp, stopping in stores and sizing up places for dinner. Eventually walking around enough to be hungry again, I selected a place called Acqua Al 2 that had won all sorts of awards as "the best Italian restaurant in Gaslamp" or somesuch. I decided to eat outside, because how couldn't I in December? Most of the other people doing so were bundled up like they were going to a Packers game and huddled under the outside heaters. By contrast, I took off my jacket and asked them to turn off the heater by me as it was a little on the warm side.

Blueberry filet mignon
Not as weird as it seems

My waiter suggested a filet mignon with a blueberry sauce that apparently was a regional specialty in Italy. I had never heard of anything like it before, but to the waiter's credit, it was spectacular. Thus fortified, I decided to go back to the hotel to get some rest.


The Accommodations:
Comfort Inn & Suites
Comfort Inn &Suites

I was staying at the Comfort Inn & Suites on the big hotel strip by the airport. When I first got in, I wasn't paying all that much attention to the room, and didn't give it a good looking over until I got back after dinner that night.

And there were some issues. The alarm clock didn't work, and I found that was not because the alarm clock was broken, but because the wall outlet it was plugged into was literally smashed. A lamp or two also didn't work, but the biggest problem was the guy next door. He was apparently leaning against our common wall and screaming a conversation in Spanish (into what I assumed was his phone because I couldn't hear the other half of it). It was so loud that he drowned out my TV. So I went down to the lobby and explained the situation, and the person at the desk moved me to a room further down the building, and everything was fine. Hurray for customer service.


On Birthday Baseball


Estadio Casas GEO
Estadio Casas GEO, 2010

Friday, December 17, 2010
Caneros De Los Mochis vs. Mexicali Aguilas
Estadio Casas GEO
Mexican Pacific League
Mexicali, Mexico
7:00 PM


Outside of the Game:
Truth is not an absolute defense, but we'll get to that in a bit.

It was only about two hours to the border, and my game was at seven at night, so I had most of the day to kill in San Diego. After the breakfast buffet at the hotel, I went back down to Petco to go on the park tour.

It turned out to just be myself, a family of four, and three guys who were down from San Francisco for the Chargers-Forty Niners game from the night before. As with most stadium tours, it was half informational and half marketing for the special sections of the park that most people only get to see on the tour. It started in the Home Plate Club (which at $325 per ticket wasn't a bad deal at all -- free food and drinks, the best seats in the house, and access to a bar that the players frequent after the game), then went through the press area, the luxury suites, and then the Hall of Fame bar in the attached historic Western Metal Supply building.

PETCO Park
Petco Park

The meat of the tour was down into the locker rooms, training areas, dugouts, and the field. Amongst the firsts for this birthday was the first time I had been in a MLB dugout, and the first time I went on a MLB field. Although the grass had been resod so we couldn't go on the field proper, I was in the on deck circle and the area behind home plate. And until you get that close, you never realize that the specs on a major-league field are just the same as the ballfield where you live, and that pitcher's mound is just awfully close to home plate to be throwing that fast at a person.

Contact list
Don't use this for evil

Our guide spent a good deal of time pointing out the differences between the facilities for the home and visiting teams, and how the former had it much better than the later in big and small ways. The home indoor batting cage was about twelve steps from the home dugout, for example, while the visiting indoor cages were past the grounds crew area, up a flight of stairs, and down a hallway.

After the tour was over, I drove back out to the piers to go to the Midway museum. By definition, anything made out of an aircraft carrier is going to be on the big side, but this museum was huge. It took a brisk pace all the way through to see it all before I had to leave to go to Mexicali. They had dozens of veterans working as tour guides and the like, and the museum did a good job of spanning the history of the boat from the late forties to its last service in the Gulf in the early nineties. But the models in the dioramas of shipboard life were a little... awkward, and the one animatronics they had brought to mind early incarnations of Chuck E Cheese.

Dummy
Hellscape

But both on the main flight deck and the middle deck, they had out the military planes used during the course of Midway's career, with several that had cockpits that you could enter. Boys couldn't run fast enough to get into them, and men of sheepishness that rose as a function of age also failed to resist the temptation to jump into the cockpits, while wives, mothers, and girlfriends looked on with a distinct lack of understanding. Veterans who used to fly the planes were around many of them, so it was pretty interesting to know exactly how your flailing around on the yoke and slapping random buttons would have gotten you killed five times before you cleared the flattop deck.

Eventually I realized it was time to head out to the game. I programmed in the destination to my TomTom, and followed its calming directions out town. The big task was getting onto 8 Eastbound. Once there, it was a matter of hooking a right at El Centro and stopping at the border. It was uncharacteristically raining as I drove out of San Diego, and the highway through the desert reached some rather impressive altitudes, so for a good portion of the journey, I'm fairly certain I was driving through the actual clouds.

While thoughts of the irony of a rainout in the desert flashed through my head, the rain had tapered off before I reached El Centro. I drove the rest of the way to Calexico dryly, and I reached the border at around 5 PM. And there was traffic, which was to be expected, I suppose. I had gotten a great deal of useful groundwork information for this trip from someone who does a great deal more baseball traveling than myself, and he had told me about a parking lot close to the border fence a little away from the main road. As I wasn't actually driving across to Mexico, I ditched off the main road and drove the back streets to the wall, found the parking lot, and parked.

It was a quick walk to the crossing, and the line was as far as the eye could see for coming into the US, but nearly non-existent on the US side. This wasn't for lack of people going into Mexicali, but for the fact that the Mexico border crossing involved going through a dangerously symbolic revolving metal gate, while the US crossing involved a passports and searches and the like.

Once across, the adventure began. I changed some dollars to pesos at one of the uncountable such booths right across the border, and then went upstairs. I also had some instructions on how to get a bus to the stadium, but I couldn't find the stop and wasn't feeling that confident on the procedure, so I just went to the taxi stand and waited.

And waited.

It was rush hour, and what taxis did come by already full of people and looking to shove in one more person. When I told the drivers I wanted to go to the baseball stadium, they all said "no" and drove off. And so I waited some more. I tried to find the bus stop and then waited some more. Eventually, an empty cab came up, and said "yes," and a short time later I was at the stadium.

Although the parking lot and outside of the stadium were poorly lit, I was able to find my way to the ticket booth. A pantomime and point later, and I had my ticket for the game.

After the game, it was much the same process in reverse. Using some vestigial Spanish and my phrase book, I managed to successfully ask if there were any taxis nearby, and then located and contracted one of said taxis to take me back to the border.

And then the magic started.

As mentioned before, instead of an implacable iron turnstile, the US border was manned with actual human agents. At this time of night, it was just a modest string of Mexican nationals and myself looking to get into Calexico. So to set the stage: middle-aged gringo saunters up to the customs desk carrying a gallon clear bag filled with papers, a towel, and pencils.

We start off well.

"Good evening." "Evening, officer."

He asks if I'm a citizen as I had over the passport, which I confirm. He looks at the passport, looks at me, and then swipes it.

And then it goes horribly wrong.

"New Jersey?" "Yes."

"What brings you out here?" "I wanted to see a baseball game on my birthday."

I've seen looks of incredulity before, but this one had to rival the one Joseph gave to Mary that fateful summer.

"You came all the way here from New Jersey to see a baseball game?" And you know, when he said it out loud to me like that, I kind of questioned the whole situation myself.

"You sure you aren't carrying anything else on you?" he asked, and the parenthetical "comma Mr. Drug Mule" was clearly audible.

What followed was five minutes of questions an pat downs and emptying of pockets and questions. It came just shy of my offering to show him the pictures of the game on my camera and the scorecard I kept before he gave up and waived me through. His partner just shook his head at me.

I retrieved my car, and settled in for the drive back to my hotel, most of it in the same rainy conditions on the way out, but with the added benefit of darkness thrown in. Just shy of one in the morning, I got back to the hotel and went to sleep, now probably on fifteen different federal watch lists.


The Stadium & Fans:

Home to center, Estadio Casas GEO
Home plate to center field, Estadio Casas GEO

Estadio Casas GEO would be very much at home in a AA or AAA league. It had one deep main layer of seating that went all around the playing field, with an additional upper deck behind home plate and concrete bleachers above the regular seats in the outfield. There was a row of luxury boxes behind home plate and some retired numbers (I think) out in the right-field wall. The field looked like it could use some love, but I've been spoiled by the preternatural green of MLB turf.

The prerequisite vending machines and concessions stands all were present, though obviously with a Mexican leaning. A mariachi band entertained patrons on the concessions ring behind home plate, and there were also two scantily-clad flagbearers who appeared throughout the evening. And there were two mascots, an adult and child eagle, that did the standard mascot antics. An on-field accident showed that the younger eagle wasn't played by a short adult, but rather a child in a costume. I wasn't sure how to process that particular information. The visiting team also had a little person as their ballboy, another piece of information I couldn't quite process.

The crowd was sparse for the game, and it started out with few people in the box seats and the rest scattered throughout the cheaper seats in the stadium. By the middle of the game, however, the crowd had begun to coalesce in the area behind home plate. Though I'm always bad at such estimations, there were probably about a thousand or so people there. The crowd was for the most part quiet and lifeless throughout the first half of the game, with the exception of when the stadium cameras were on them. This prompted nearly all of the featured people to jump up and dance. One frequent on-screen group was a party of early teenaged girls who were in one of the luxury suites. They all danced in such a way as to make the fathers of young teenaged girls lose sleep at night, but no one seemed particularly offended, and when the mascot visited their box later in the game, he was grinding it up with them, so what do I know?

The crowd started to get more into the game as the Eagles made their comeback. By the end of the game, they were actively cheering or jeering in the appropriate places, and made a good deal of noise when Mexicali closed out the win.


At the Game With Oogie:

Scoring
More multi-country scoring

The game was rather sparsely attended, so there weren't very many people around me. I was in the first seat of the first row behind home plate, and there was a family sitting in the luxury area in front  of me, but until the late innings when two gentlemen in suits sat down a few seats down from me, there wasn't even anyone in my row for the entire game.


The Game:

First pitch, Sugar Cane Growers vs. Eagles
First pitch, Sugar Cane Growers vs. Eagles

The game looked to be over almost before it began. The Mexicali pitcher couldn't record an out, and the opposition nearly batted around in the first inning. The pitcher didn't help his cause by booting a routing grounder to extend the inning, and the Mochis took advantage of sluggish early fielding to extend singles into doubles and go first to third on routine singles. The first half inning took forever, and it looked to be a long slog of a night ahead as Mexicali went down meekly in the bottom of the inning, leaving the score 3-0 after the barrage of hits, walks, and errors. But then things evened out, as both teams went scoreless for a long stretch, with the exception of a single run in the 4th by the Mochis on a walk and two singles.

Then Mexicali began to show some life in the fifth. A two out single was followed quickly by a two-run home run that put them on the board, but the following walk was quickly snuffed out with a strikeout, leaving the score 4-2.

The bottom fell out for the Mochis in the 7th, with Mexicali batting around and the Mochis going through four pitchers. A leadoff solo home run got things going, and the next batter grounded out for the last out for a good while. Two singles were followed by a pitching change, a walk, and another pitching change. The new pitcher gave up a double that brought home two of the runners. The next batter got an intentional pass, and the pitcher finally got another out, but it was a sacrifice fly to center that brought home the fourth run of the inning. The pitcher gave up another walk, before being pulled in turn for a new hurler that finally got the third out to pop up to second. But the damage was done, and Mexicali was leading 6-4.

Mexicali finally switched pitchers, and but the new guy gave one back on a two-out home run. He was pulled, and the next pitcher had a shortstop error put the tying run on base before fanning the last batter of the inning.

Both sides went down in order until the end of the game, giving Mexicali the come-from-behind 6-5 win.


The Scorecard:

Sugar Cane Growers vs. Eagles, 12-17-10. Eagles win, 6-5.Sugar Cane Growers vs. Eagles, 12-17-10. Eagles win, 6-5.
Sugar Cane Growers vs. Eagles, 12/17/10. Eagles win, 6-5.

My information source told me that they don't sell MLB-style programs or scorecards, so I brought my Scoremaster book that I used in Japan with me. Keeping score was a little bit of an adventure, as I don't speak Spanish, they apparently don't put player names on the uniforms, and the people working the main scoreboard can be, at best, called desultory in their duties. They sometimes didn't show the graphic for the player at bat, and when they did show it, they often showed the wrong graphic for the player at bat. While they did announce the players over the loudspeaker, it was fairly impossible to pick out the player names from whatever else they were saying.

All this lead to difficulties early on, as I was trying to keep up with what was going on the chaotic first inning while rusty from not having kept score in a couple months and trying to work out the intricacies of how the players were displayed. I eventually figured out that I had seen the uniform number of a player incorrectly as two separate numbers, and so had an extra player in for the visiting team. I managed to sort it out by the second inning, but I just corrected all the player stats and crossed out the extraneous player line. Sloppy, sloppy.

I eventually managed to get all the players matched up to their numbers and positions, except for names of the visiting pitchers (whom they never bothered to put up on the screen) or the starting home pitcher (for the same reason). To the best of my reckoning, the Mexican Pacific League uses a DH, as the player batting in the "1" position was not the same guy out there on the mound and didn't change when the pitcher did.

All that said, once I got the mechanical basics sorted out, there wasn't anything particularly noteworthy scoring-wise for the game besides an unearned run in the first and the complete lack of any double-plays.


The Accommodations:
I was at the Comfort Inn again. After hitting the breakfast buffet and leaving in the morning, I didn't see my room again until I got back late after the game.



On Happy Birthday to You, You Belong in a Zoo

Protest
Spoil-sports

Saturday, December 18, 2010
San Diego, CA


Outside of the Game:
I slept in a little on Saturday, having gotten in on the late side the night before, but it was more along the lines of getting up at nine as opposed to rolling out of bed at noon.

After breakfast, I had an unscheduled day to kill in San Diego. This weekend was the first appreciable time I had to spend as an adult in San Diego. My last time through had literally been several hours to see a Padres game and then nearly immediately leaving to head out to Phoenix for the next day. My only visit besides then was one when I was in first grade.

I decided to start at the zoo, which I had visited with my parents my first time though. The zoo turned out to be one of the only things revisited from my youth that did not turn out to be much smaller than I remember it -- if anything, the sprawling grounds were even much larger than I recalled.

Once again, some mild showers had the local Wicked Witch population terrified, and the attendance at the park was apparently on the low side, which was fine by me. Overcast and rainy days can be the best time to see the animals, especially the big cats and other African mammals that tend to sleep the afternoon away if it is too hot out. The day seemed to get all of the rain out of its system on my drive down to the zoo, as it remained mostly overcast, but did not much more than infrequently mist for the remainder of the day.

I started with a double-decker bus tour, and very few people braved the upper deck with me. The tour helped give me the lay of the land, and the next several hours were spent just tramping around the enormity of the place. While the zoo was laid out very well, there were a number of "trails" that overlapped each other in confusing ways that managed to have me double back several times, and always, always uphill. However, the zoo helpfully provides several electronic foot massage stations at regular intervals that will vibrate your feet into another dimension of existence for a quarter.

San Diego has a reputation as one of the pre-eminent zoos and the world, and it really lived up to the reputation. All the exhibits and facilities were top-notch and there was an extensive variety of animals. They even had a baby panda, and frankly those things need a warning label, because that kind of adorable can kill if you're not properly prepared. I stopped by that exhibit twice, separated by several hours, and there was the same Chinese family there both times, and I'm not sure they ever left. They may yet linger.

In the computer game, Zoo Tycoon, you can throw different types of animals into the same enclosure and wait for the inevitable fight to the death. With that knowledge, it was with extraordinary interest that I saw an exhibit that had a dog and panther-like big cat in it together. I knew the museum was progressive, but I thought bloodsports was beyond their mission statement. It turns out that this isn't for some vicious kicks of zookeepers that snapped from the pressure but an acclimatization program for the big cats. When they are in stressful situations around people, being able to watch the calm reaction from the dog apparently helps keep the big cats calm and prepares them for ambassador programs with schoolchildren and the like. So check mark for Saturday for learning something.

Teamwork
Not a death-match

Several hours later, I had finally realized why this place sold two-day passes, but I had also finally seen everything by late afternoon. There were several holiday events scheduled for later in the night, so I got my hand stamped and then walked down to the museum district just to the south of the zoo in Balboa Park.

I found out the rule of cultural attractions closing at around 4 extended to the weekends as well as the weekdays, but the Science Center was open until late, so I went in there. It had been a while since I had been to a nerd physics museum, so I amused myself with all the exhibits for an hour or so and then walked around the park some more before heading back to the zoo.

I watched a few of the Christmas performances and then took the skyride and buses around at night to try and see some of the nocturnal animals. Just before closing, I had reached my final quota of walking for the day and drove back to the hotel, grabbed dinner at the restaurant next door again, packed, and went to bed.

The Accommodations:
The Comfort Inn again. I again spent very little time there.



On Getting Out of Dodge

Flight
No delays now

Sunday, December 19, 2010
Hoboken, NJ


Outside of the Game:
And so it goes -- another day of packing up and heading home. After going to bed so early the night before, I got up relatively early at the hotel, washed up, finished packing, and headed down for breakfast.

The rest of the morning was uneventful except for one minor moral victory. When I picked up my rental car, I had opted for the "unlimited gas" option, so it didn't matter how much gas was in the tank when I returned it. Outside of the drive out to Mexicali, I hadn't used any significant amount of gas, and was cruising at about an eighth of a tank when I started out Sunday morning, with the rental return about ten minutes away. As I pulled out of the hotel driveway, the "get gas soon" light came on, and by the time I parked at the Budget lot, it was just on "Empty." So after many times of forgetting to refill the tank before dropping off a rental, or having to pay five bucks to top it off before returning, I finally got the exact limit of my money's worth on rental car gas. Surely, future generations will tell stories of this great victory.

I managed to return my car just as the shuttle to the airport was getting ready to leave, so I was at the terminal and through security with a good two hours to go before my flight left, once again avoiding the Freedom Grope. They seemed to be pulling every other person on the security line for the backscan, but I just ignored the one woman and walked through the regular metal detector with no problems. I then got a sit-down lunch, and remembering my flight out, I also bought a sandwich and some snacks for the flight home, and then wandered around until I found some rocking chairs looking out onto the tarmac, where I settled in for a good sit until the plane boarded.

There never seem to be any delays going home. Everybody boarded the plane, and beside a ten-minute delay to fix some air conditioning situation, we were off close to on-time, and the rightgeous tail wind had us scheduled to land ahead of time. Land ahead of time we did, to the point that the previous plane at the gate had not left yet, so we got to wait until it got out of our parking space. I was seated amidst a five-member family, and after being quiet as a mouse for the entire trip, the youngest daughter started acting up, and frankly, I was with her. The extra little turn of the knife was when the cabin crew started to try to bum rush us out of the door and complained we weren't going fast enough. I thought of pointing out that it wasn't our idea to sit around for five minutes as your people tried to get the door open, but I thought better of it, and just went out into the cold, dark reality of Newark to meet my father for the drive back to my apartment.


The Accommodations:
Home, sweet, Hoboken.


2010 Stand-Alone Trip