Saturday, March 16, 2013

Port St. Lucie

On a Curious Effect of the Season

Newark Liberty Bald Eagle God-Bless-America Airport
Friday, March 15, 2013
Boynton Beach, FL

Outside the Game:
It always seems that around this time of year, work is getting me down. This year was no different, but no doubt more intense, as thanks to client foot-dragging and several rather abrupt changes of direction, I had managed to work 180 hours in the previous three weeks, instead of the more traditional 120.

So I was more than ready to head down for Spring Training, especially as my work troubles were flying parallel to what seemed like an endless off-season without baseball. Taking my first vacation day since last July, I dragged myself out of bed and off to the airport. The trip did not begin under good signs, as even after 9 AM on a Friday, the Pulaski Skyway was still clogged up in both directions.

More surprisingly, this turned out to be the last hitch in my travels. I got through security with little trouble (partly due to the fact that I bought my tickets back before my Silver Elite status had lapsed), had a quick breakfast a terminal diner, and headed out to my gate, where a crew, a plane, and gate staff were already waiting.

I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop on this flight, but it never did. There were swarms of children and the elderly joining me down to West Palm Beach, but the boarding of the flight was orderly and relatively without incident. The children remained well-behaved for the entire flight, and I found myself playing Skee Ball on my iPad for the duration of the uneventful trip.

My father picked me up at the airport, and I was again thrust into the land of eternal brightness. My parents had a different unit in the old folks condo complex this year, which came with an additional bathroom and bedroom. I immediately made use of the later to take an extended nap, and enjoyed the nicest Friday I've had in quite a while.

As has become tradition, my family in Florida came over for a pizza party that evening. It was mostly tolerable, as most of the younger folks and myself adjourned to the patio to talk baseball and Archer for most of the night. One of my aunts is hosting a Caribbean student who is up to play baseball for a local high school. He was an interesting source of insight and discussion on different cultural practices in baseball.

Pizza was eaten, plans were made for getting to the game the next day, and eventually everyone went back to their domiciles of choice.

The Accommodations:
As mentioned, I was again staying in my parents' snowbird condo in Boynton Beach. This year, I had a room all to myself, which was a welcome change from sleeping on a pull-out couch in the living room, to be awakened by whatever parent dragged themselves through first the next morning, inevitably earlier than good taste would dictate.

Worthy of note was the truly bad taste the owners of this condo possessed. The place was filled to the brim with knickknacks from Boston and Martha's Vineyard, but because of one NY picture in the menagerie, my mother had decided they were from New York. Wherever their origin, the truly astounding amount of ceramic pigs and ugly nautical items pointed an accusing finger at whoever was responsible for their interior decorating.

On the Games Not Mattering

Tradition Field
Tradition Field, 2013
Saturday, March 16, 2013
Miami Marlins vs. New York Metropolitans
Tradition Field
Grapefruit League (Spring Training)
Port St. Lucie, FL
1:10 PM

Outside the Game:
It was a relatively early start the next day. We had the children of cousins to pick up to take to the game with us, and I was officially writing up this stadium for my first gig with Stadium Journeys magazine, so I had to get there early. We got there with a minimum of fuss, parked early, and I parted ways with my compatriots to do my stadium write-up.

After the game, we got back to the car for a similarly unnoticeable drive back to the condo. My parents went to church, I went to sleep, and we went out for another contentious dinner of passive aggression, ingrained behavior patterns, and tiresome arguments.

The Stadium & Fans:
Home to center, Tradition Field
Home plate to center field, Tradition Field

For their 25th year as the Spring Training home of the Mets, they had to dust off the two year-old signs for Tradition Field, as the previous marketing arrangement with Digital Domain had expired last year. The old signs seemed to not be too far in storage and were out and shiny for the start of the game.

There weren't many updates of note since the remodeling last year that hooked up the picnic berm in the outfield with the rest of the park. They added a championship pennant wall near the outfield entrance, with all the victories of the parent club as well as the minor league affiliates that call the stadium home for the rest of the year.

As it was a weekend game late in spring against a local opponent, the stadium was more filled than in previous years, about 3/4ths full up. Most of the assembled were Mets fans, but given the proximity of the Marlins, there was a good deal of the opposition in attendance as well.

At the Game with Oogie:

I  was once again with my family at this game, and sundry cousins and their children and their foreign exchange students were sitting with us in our block of seats over two rows. That most of them were Marlins fans eventually became a point of contention. All around us were big families of Mets fans clearly down for the season.

The Game:
First pitch, Marlins vs. Metropolitans
First pitch, Marlins vs. Metropolitans

For the most part, this was an early pitcher's duel that turned into a game of musical chairs later.

The visiting Marlins managed to scare up a one-out double in the first and nothing else, while the Mets squandered a leadoff walk and single with a double-play and a ground out. The Marlins squeezed out one single in each of the next two innings, but the Mets went meekly down in order.

In the top of the fourth, a lead-off routine ground ball to third turned into something more, as Justin Turner caught his cleat on the lip of the grass and splayed himself out making the throw to first, leading to an E5 and his removal from the game. This seemed inevitably followed by a triple to right, bringing home a run and leaving a runner at third with no outs. A ground out to short brought the runner home, and was followed by a walk. But further damage was averted by two quick outs, leaving Miami up 2-0.

The Mets answered in the bottom of the inning with a one-out single followed by a ground-rule double to deep center. A ground-out to second brought the runner from third home, and a walk made it first and second with two outs. But a weak chop to short ended the inning 2-1 Marlins.

The Marlins went in order in the fifth and sixth, and the Mets only managed a lonely single in the fifth and leadoff walk in the sixth (erased on another double play). The seventh was another scoring frame, as the Marlins got a leadoff double to left that was moved over to third on a ground-out and brought home on a two-out single. The Mets also got a leadoff double to left that got moved home on two successive ground-outs, making the distance between the teams the same as last inning and the score 3-2 Marlins.

The Marlins tacked on an insurance run in the eighth with a one-out monster blast out of the park to left. A single and walk followed, but they got nothing more from it. The insurance run wasn't needed, and the Mets went in order for the rest of the game. One last slightly positive note for the Mets was getting out of trouble in the top of the ninth, with back-to-back walks that were erased on a caught stealing and a double play.

Nevertheless, the Marlins win this one, 4-2.

The Scorecard:
Marlins vs. Metropolitans, 03-16-13. Marlins win, 4-2.Marlins vs. Metropolitans, 03-16-13. Marlins win, 4-2.
Marlins vs. Metropolitans, 03/16/13. Marlins win, 4-2.

I again delved into the madness of scoring a Spring Training game, and picked up the $6 program at the concession booth outside the stadium. It is a still a little cramped for the amount of switching going on in March games, lacks pitching lines, and has a curiously labeled "B" column that I can only assume is for RBIs.

The game was not of much interest from a scoring perspective. There were a few double plays and an injury to note down, but otherwise straightforward. Around the seventh inning, changes started coming fast and hard, and the announcers once again did a very poor job of keeping us abreast of them. Sometimes they announced batters as pinch hitters, sometime as the position they were taking over... If they just would keep the lineups on the scoreboard during the game, 90% of this would be resolved.

But we persevere.

One item of note was two at-bats in the ninth. I wasn't tracking balls and strikes, but the second Marlins batter in the ninth had a truly epic at bat. By the time I was really taking note of it, the at-bat was six or seven pitches in. On a three-two count, he fouled off at least ten pitches. He eventually won the battle and drew the walk. In the Mets half of the inning, there was another lengthy at-bat, but not nearly as long as the first. It probably went about ten to twelve pitches and ended in an out. Let's go Mets.

The Accommodations:
I was once again on the futon in the second bedroom of my parents' condo at the over 55 community. I added incrementally to the damage to my lower back.

On Small Pockets

West Palm Beach Airport
Sunday, March 17, 2013
Hoboken, NJ

Outside of the Game:
And so it goes. After sleeping in as long as possible on an awkward futon, I awoke and packed up to go. My mother claimed herself sick again, so it would just be my father and myself going out for breakfast this morning.

Foregoing a brunch for a diner breakfast being sans madre, we checked out a number of local places before settling on a diner slightly more out of the way, but on our route to the airport. We availed ourselves of some unhealthy consumables, and then went off to the airport.

The god of irony was looking down on me this day, as I had been complaining that the one thing I hated about the pants I wore that day was they had such small pockets. It is likely that at exactly that time, when I was trying to cram my cell phone in the same pocket with my wallet, that my cell phone actually squirted back out of my pocket and into my father's car. I did not notice this state of events until I got to the airport, and then I had no way of contacting my father to check, as said cell phone and the number for his cell phone were both in his car. (Or at least I supposed later. This turned out to be the case.)

I killed the requisite time at the airport, and one gate change later, it was time to board the flight home. The flight back was as quick as the flight down, landing so early that we needed to wait for a gate to open for us. I had to use all the change in my pocket to call my car service to confirm my arrival. Luckily, a follow-up was not needed, and I was whisked home for a glamorous evening of laundry and unpacking.

The Accommodations:
Sweet Home Hoboken

2013 Stand-Alone Trip

Saturday, March 2, 2013


On Time Travel, Of a Sort

Vintage Baseball
Vintage Baseball 
Saturday, March 2, 2013
New York Baseball Club vs. The Knickerbockers [Hoboken Nine Intrasquad]
Elysian Fields [Dobbelaar Baseball Field]
Birthplace of Baseball Classic
Hoboken, NJ

Outside the Game:
I've done a bit with baseball. As of this writing, I have watched and scored professional games in no less than five countries, and seen all the major league teams in four of them. I will likely add the entire major league of a sixth this year. To say I'm more than the average fan is a bit of an understatement.

Yet there is one thing I haven't done. With the exception of some random softball here and there, I haven't actually played baseball all that much since, I don't know, Babe Ruth League. And that is as much because of a lack of opportunity as the rapidly decaying condition of my soon-to-be elderly body. But still, there was one opportunity that I could not pass up.

In recent years, there has been an increasing interest in "vintage baseball," which is baseball played by different historical rule sets. The most popular of these are the 1860 rules, which removes some of the more primitive and barbaric rules, such as "soaking" (it used to be perfectly legal to record an out by hitting a baserunner with the ball, or "soaking" him), yet preserving the young nucleus of the game. There are no mitts (unmanly), but you can catch the ball on one bounce and still record an out (though the runners can advance at will). All pitching is underhand. Batters and pitchers, respectively, get warnings before the first strike or ball. Quick pitching is legal. Routine catches and throws can be adventures without mitts. Pulling off a double play requires consummate skill and focus.

While the 1860 rules are easily the most popular in vintage baseball, there are teams that do other rulesets, such as 1910 (overhand pitching, proto-mitts, over-running bases, etc.). Last year, Hoboken, one of the mythic birthplaces of baseball, started a vintage team using the 1860 rules called the "Hoboken Nine." The club was, appropriately enough, sponsored by the Hoboken Historical Museum and a local bar. The nucleus of the team were some serious adult softball league players. They played an unorganized schedule in 2012, while this year they were formally entering the local Vintage Baseball league.

After I found out about the team last year, I had answered their call for players. Vintage ball is mostly played by guys in their thirties or pushing middle-age or more, so my particular condition would not rule me out. But by the time I replied, they were full up. They referred me to another vintage team the next city over, the Jersey City Skeeters, who played by the 1910 rules. I had been in contact with one of their organizers over the winter, and before their season officially started, they were looking for volunteers to help the Hoboken Nine fill out an intrasquad game they were playing in early March. This was to be the inaugural "Birthplace of Baseball Classic" that was to commemorate the first game of baseball under the New York rules between the New York Baseball Club and the Knickerbockers club. The actual game happened in May and at the Elysian Fields (now near the grounds of the Hoboken Historical Museum), but this was an acceptably close approximation.

Seeing as this was just an exhibition game (more of between-game entertainment for two college games that day), I was convinced that it was as good as any place to get started, so I and another Skeeters player would be completing that day's roster. As it was my first vintage game ever, the other Skeeters player would be bringing a uniform for me.

As added difficulty, that Saturday was also Fake St. Patrick's Day in Hoboken, now called "LepreCon." For non-locals, the "St. Patrick's Day" parade in Hoboken was traditionally held two weeks before the actual item in order to more easily have access to traditional musicians who were next to impossible to book for the week of actual St. Patrick's Day. The traditional drinking went along with the moved-up parade, and it was known to get a little boisterous. However, in the past five years, the event simply got out of hand, with bars moving their openings into the early morning, special buses and trains carting in out-of-towners looking for Mardi Gras North, and drunk crowds trashing the city while migrating from overcrowded house party to overcrowded house party. It got to the point where sane locals would leave town for the day to avoid the carnage, and return the next day to see what (usually extensive) property damage was done to their homes while the over-taxed police force kept running from emergency to emergency. Two years ago, the city finally hit their breaking point (after a particularly disastrous and lawless event), and they cancelled the weekend parade and moved it to mid-week. Despite the birth of the replacement "LepreCon" (organized by bars desperate for the cash idiot out-of-towners dumped into their coffers that day), the insanely huge crowds stayed away, and the weekend became safer and more manageable.

Which isn't to say it was gone completely. I walked the back roads at much as possible to get to the Steven's campus at the other end of town, avoiding most of the stupidity. I had never had cause to be on the Steven's grounds before, and this was perhaps the only place in Hoboken I hadn't been previously. I spent some time walking around the campus and finally visiting Castle Point before heading to Dobbelaar Baseball Field, which was to stand in for the Elysian Fields that day.

As mentioned, we were the between-game entertainment, so we only had a vague idea of when we would actually start. The first game between Eastern Connecticut State University and New Jersey City University was still going on when I arrived. I had given myself plenty of time, so I was one of the first there on this chilly day, more appropriate for football than baseball. I watched the game for a bit before someone showed up in a vintage uniform, whom I rightly discerned was also there for the game. We talked and waited as more and more people showed up for the game, including my contact and the head of the Hoboken 9 team, who was clearly doing some celebrating of his own on LepreCon.

We eventually moved in the clubhouse across the street and got suited up. Putting on the vintage uniform was more than a little weird, especially because we were dressing in a Steven's locker room where students were getting ready for practices. One has to wonder what they thought of us. There was a post-game spread of free hot dogs and Cracker Jack being set up for us before the game. Eventually, teams were split up, and I would be on the New York Baseball Club team. Batting orders and field placements were hashed out (for my first game, I was batting eighth and playing left field), and then we went out into the cold to warm up, for whatever sense that made.

The first collegiate game was still going on, so we took the time to get loose. It was about this time that it actually started snowing. It was also when I was severely regretting not having on a long-sleeved shirt. The Skeeters uniform turned out to be short-sleeved, and I was unable to wear my plaid flannel shirt underneath it, so I was going to have to tough it out in the cold.

Speaking of toughing it, have you ever tried to catch a ball bare-handed? Now, granted, the 1860 balls were leather around wrapped wool, so it is not the deadly solid projectile of today, but to get the feeling of what it is like to catch a ball bare-handed, find something made of leather and slap it hard into your hand over and over again. My hands remained battered and cracked for days afterward.

Eventually, the college game ended, and we scurried out to the dugouts. We started out by getting introduced. When you play vintage ball, you traditionally have to get a nickname, like "Shorty," or "Irish," or "Pops." I chose "Scotch," and I think everyone who knows me knows why. And then we eventually got onto the game proper.

After the game, we all scurried back to the clubhouse to regain circulation and wolf down the food waiting for us. I got changed back into civilian clothes and tracked down the other Skeeter to give him the uniform, thanked everyone for the opportunity, and then, with smarting hands, I went again back to my apartment via the backroads, to not leave it until the next day when all the amateur drunks went home.

The Stadium & Fans:
Dobbelaar Baseball Field
Dobbelaar Baseball Field

Dobbelaar Baseball Field is part of the DeBaun Athletic Complex on the campus of Steven's Institute of Technology. It is a multi-sport field, and for baseball use, the left half of the larger field is blocked off with a removable fence that then becomes the visiting bullpen, while another removable fence in right blocks off the home bullpen. The infield itself gets a little lost in all the permanent lines for various sports that are etched into the artificial surface of the field. Two yard-shed-looking structures provide the dugouts for each team, and an even smaller shed holds the announcers and scorers booth, where two people were pathetically huddled in this cold and snowy afternoon to perform their duties for the college games.

Glamour and glory

There are two non-traditional seating areas for fans. Across the street and up a small hill from the park were several rows of seats that actually offered a fine view of the field, while a larger section of stands was built into the clubhouse building on the left field side of the stadium, accessible by a stairwell next to the seats. Two scoreboards were located against the Hoboken skyline on the far side of the field. The one furthest to the right was used for the baseball game.

College baseball
College match-up

For the early-season college contest, there was a sparse crowd, clearly made of parents and friends of the players, or the players for the second game waiting for their turn. The most interested spectators for our game were the players themselves, watching in disbelief as people at least twice their age went out to play baseball in the snow without gloves.

A member of a central New Jersey vintage team was also up for the game in uniform. He didn't play, but instead acted as the interpreter for the crowd, explaining what was going on during the game and all the rules changes and the different social standards for the game (calling a catch on the bounce unmanly, or the absence of high-fives -- handshakes only, please).

At the Game with Oogie:
Covered in detail elsewhere, obviously.

The Game:
Vintage baseball
Olde timey

This was an exhibition contest for which we only had about half an hour, but we got in a good three or four innings. Stripped of all of its trappings, baseball can be played at quite a clip. In the first inning in the snow and cold, neither squad did much. But in the second, my New York Club scored several times. The Knickerbocker Club got one or two across in the last inning, but we were clearly the victor.

As for myself, ignoring advice to choke up heavily on the vintage tree (sorry, "bat") I was swinging, I managed to strike out in my first at bat (even with the warning in lieu of a first strike), and I grounded out to short in my second at-bat by instinctively over-running first (which is not allowed). I had one put-out in the field (on a unmanly bounce), and one that got by my tumbling self because I forgot I lacked a mitt to make the catch I was attempting.

Ty Cobb I may not be, but considering it was literally the first time I was ever doing these things, and given it was in the snow wearing short sleeves, I have nowhere to go but up.

The Scorecard:
This is the first baseball game that I've seen where I didn't keep score in a long time. I actually felt it absence.

The Accommodations:
Non-Vintage, Drunk-Filled Hoboken

2013 Stand-Alone Event