Saturday, March 21, 2015

Kissimmee (Braves)

On Facing Baseball in the House of Mouse

Champion Stadium
Champion Stadium, 2015
Saturday, March 21, 2015
Washington Nationals vs. Atlanta Braves
Champion Stadium
Grapefruit League (Spring Training)
Kissimmee, FL
1:05 PM

Outside of the Game: 
I awoke in the belly of the beast for a lazy morning. On paper, I was about fifteen minutes from the park, so I lazed around in my huge-ass bed for a while. Since the ballpark was within a Disney property, I wanted to get there before 10 AM to have a look around, so I was checked out and driving by 9:30 AM.

A short drive later took me to the gates of Hell, where plentiful signs told me not to stop under any circumstances, perhaps to dissuade people having last-minute misgivings about going in. In I went, and several turns later, I was at the entrance to ESPN's Wide World of Sports. It is here that things took an odd turn, so to speak.

I saw the first sign for parking, so I followed it, drove a considerable distance, only to reach another sign for parking, and this process repeated at least five times. The parking area must have been larger than Hoboken (a mere one square mile). As I passed one of the inevitably smiling parking attendants, I asked if the actual lot was near because I was running out of gas. Her smile froze and she laughed in a forced way that indicated she had never, ever heard that joke before.

Eventually, inevitably, I was directed to an actual parking space. And it was next to another pale grey Chevy Spark. The driver was already out of his car and taking off his Nationals jersey to lather up with sunscreen as I exited my own car. We both noticed, and I asked if he got his car from Dollar as well. He got his from Thrifty, which uses the same cars, and we had our little laugh. It turned out that he was down from DC and was following the Nationals for four days. In an irony not lost on me, I had actually seen the Nationals play by accident just as long as someone who had come down for specifically that purpose.

It was already hot south of 10 AM and only looking to get hotter, so I was seeing if I could get a ticket in the shade. Getting to a friendly ticket-taker in the area outside the park grounds, I was told that there's no place outside of the standing room or the luxury boxes that guaranteed shade. He also asked if I was from up North, to which I responded in the affirmative. He then continued that it was going to be extremely less warm when I went home, so I might as well enjoy it, and as I was returning home the next day, I took his wisdom to heart.

I then entered the Wide World of Sports complex itself, had my ticket checked by a smiling person in an impeccable uniform, and was in a Disney park for the first time in nearly a decade. The Wide World of Sports isn't a traditional Disney park. It is an extensive collection of sports fields (where rich high school and college teams from the North apparently come down for "spring training," as well as hosting sporting tournaments of various sizes) and a few "fan experience" buildings and the inevitable stores.

I was there, of course, because of the Grapefruit League park for the Braves that was right by the entrance to the complex, with a facade to fit in with the rest of the buildings. As the park didn't open until 10 AM, I took my walk around and then headed to the back of the park, where the practice fields are located. I walked around for a little, watching practices and trying not to get any Braves on me, and then headed back to the ballpark a little after opening to go in and do my thing one last time on this trip.

After the game, fearing traffic of an epic and unimaginable scale, I scooted out of the game as soon as the final out was recorded and headed straight back to my car. My vehicular twin had already departed, and I made my way to the nearest exit as fast as possible. To my surprise, I was on my way and out of Disney almost immediately.

It is from there that I had to head south-east to get back to my parents' condo in Boynton Beach. And it was on the highways that I ran into some pretty serious traffic, but once I was able to get to the Parkway, I was clear sailing for the rest of the trip down, arriving at a little after 6:30 PM.

I offloaded my stuff one last time, took a needed shower, and then started to sort out my packing. Because I had been able to offload all my purchased crap at my parents' condo at regular intervals, it quickly became apparent that all of this stuff was not going to fit in my suitcase. I started doing triage and dumped nearly all of it into two bags for my parents to send back north the next week in my mother's car, which they were shipping north when they returned. I eventually got everything in a good place, and then, against my better judgement, was taken out to dinner with my parents, which was survived, but had me getting to bed no earlier than 11 PM, which promised a groggy Saturday start.

The Stadium & Fans:
Home to center, Champion Stadium
Home plate to center field, Champion Stadium

Champion Stadium is perhaps ironically named, and I’m not sure anyone has picked up on it. The Grapefruit League home of the Braves is named singularly -- champion, not champions -- which can be seen by those that would like to as a commentary on their solitary World Series Championship despite their domination of the NL East for a decade, finally squeaking out a sole victory against a Cleveland team even more sad-sack than themselves. Or at least, that’s how I look at it.

The headline on Champion Stadium is that it is located in a Disney park, and is affiliated with Disney for obvious reasons. Granted it isn’t Magic Kingdom, or hell, even Animal Kingdom, but ESPN Wide World of Sports is, in fact, a Disney park. Beside the ballpark and a couple high-end, ESPN-related sports stores and “experiences,” for the most part, the facility is a bunch of fields for a wide array of sports either used for tournaments, or, I kid you not, “spring training” for (presumably rich) school sports teams from further north, and that idea blew my mind more than anything else.

The ballpark is inside the Disney park, so you need to either buy a ticket to the game, have a pass for a group on one of the other fields, or buy a ticket to get in to see Champion Stadium at all. From the outside, the Spanish colonial-style park looks like any other themed building you’d find in any other Disney park. Double-level archways line the park on tall walls that encircle the entire park. With the ticket booths at the entrance to the Wild World of Sport park itself, the only thing on the outside of the park are the large main entrance, a VIP entrance down by third-base side of the park, and the cast and player entrances on the first-base side of the park. Down a stairway behind the outfield wall of the park are the practice fields, arranged and meticulously organized on well-manicured paths only the way Disney can. All the practice fields and training buildings are named for Braves’ luminaries of the past, and the layout means that players are often trotting the same paths as the plebeians.
The hoi-polloi all enter through the large home-plate entrance, which, to no one’s great surprise, runs straight through the ESPN Clubhouse Shop team store. It then ends up on the outside promenade, a wide path that runs outside the back of the grandstand from third base to first-base, with a large entry plaza by the entrance behind home plate. This is also in the Spanish colonial style, with most of the food concessions and other tables set up along its length. Champion Stadium is the only true two-deck stadium in the Grapefruit League, so the outer promenade is mirrored by a smaller Mezzanine level walkway accessed by stairwells around the circumference, with its own plaza at the home plate side with more concessions.

Various ramps and exits at the end of the grandstand spill the crowds out on the rest of the promenade that runs the rest of the way to the outfield corners, terminating at the dead center monolith tower, housing a digital scoreboard, the batter’s eye, and a digital video board running from left-center to right-center. The single-level outfield wall is covered only in Disney ads, and the top of trees and blue sky is the only thing seen beyond. The walkway through the seating bowl is perched on the top of the lower seating section, with stairs leading down to the seats. The walkway on the upper deck is on the base of the level, with stairs up to what passes for nosebleed seats. The main grandstand runs from first to third, with the upper deck overhanging the lower deck, and luxury boxes and the press box topping the upper deck of seating. A lower row of bleachers runs the distance out to the right field corner. On the left field side, a picnic hill runs from the end of the grandstand out to left-center field. A forest of corporate sponsor pennants rises at the top of the hill in left center. Make your own joke here.

There are several party areas on the promenade in right field and left field, along with luxury tents that run the top of the walkway in the left field corner. The right field area is closed off for grounds crew and other facilities operations, as in any Disney park. There’s a Jackie Robinson memorial on the lower walkway, which would be more inspiring if it wasn’t wedged between another team store and a concession stand, half-concealed behind a condiment cart.
As you might expect from a baseball park on a Disney property, the entertainment value was much higher than at other Grapefruit League parks. It began with a fully produced pre-game show with an MC and a camera crew wandering the park prior to the game, eventually cutting to live set-pieces on the digital board and other displays around the park, aping similar pre-game productions at other MLB parks around the country. Of course, Disney characters in baseball outfits (available for purchase at the convenient team stores) make their appearance before and during the game during fan-friendly events such as introducing veterans, bringing kids on the field, or other shenanigans. There’s even a saxophone quartet dressed in olde tymey baseball uniforms called the “Atlanta Braves Philharmonic” that come out and plays before the game and during some between-inning breaks. The regular minor-league level contests, races, and giveaways are also in effect, but produced much better than your average MiLB effort.
There was a decent-sized crowd, but not one to fill up that gigantic stadium too big for its purpose. Most people were trying to not get heat stroke and were clearly there for the entertainment value, but enough of them participated in the racist and idiotic tomahawk chop to not completely know what was going on.

At the Game with Oogie:
Blinding scoring

So, with gates three hours before gametime, I had plenty of time to wander about the place and do my business. Food-wise, I got a really expensive hot dog combo to start, and after some more walking around, I saw "boiled peanuts" advertised. It was apparently a Georgia thing, so I decided to give it a try. This was a mistake. Boiled peanuts are disgusting and people from Georgia are disgusting for eating them.
I had a bunch of time to kill after I had done my rounds and gotten the lineups from the digital lineup card near the entrance. ESPN was paying people to give feedback on their new interface for their fantasy baseball app, but I wasn't that bored.
I had backed bleacher seats just beyond first base. The bleachers were sitting in the sun all morning, so it was a careful procedure to sit down. I was wedged between a group of middle-aged guys in front of me, a family to my left and behind me, and a pair of college-aged couples to my right. It was obvious that the guys in the couples were wash-out college players and their girlfriends knew nothing about baseball, as evidenced by the fact that the gentlemen had to explain every last thing that happened in the game to them.

The Braves fans did that inane, racist chop chant during rallies, and I didn't murder a soul. I feel I deserve some acknowledgement for that.

The Game:
First pitch, Nationals vs. Braves
First pitch, Nationals vs. Braves

The last of the meaningless, late-season Spring Training games lined up with the Washington Nationals and the Atlanta Braves facing off in Disney. Why not?

Washington started promisingly with a leadoff double, but he got no further than third before the end of the half. In the bottom of the first, the Braves went in order despite a leadoff walk thanks to a double play. The Nationals just had a walk in the top of the second, while Atlanta went in order in their half. Washington got on the board in the third with back-to-back singles to start the frame, a wild pitch to move everyone over, and another single to bring them both in for a 2-0 lead. Atlanta just had a single in their half.

The Nationals went in order in the top of the fourth despite a leadoff single thanks to a double-play. But Atlanta got on the board big, putting up three runs with a single, double, and two more singles to race to a 3-2 lead. Both sides went in order in the fifth, but Washington had a leadoff walk that made it no further than third in the top of the sixth, while the Braves again went in order.

In the top of the seventh, the Nationals went in order again, while Atlanta got two more runs on the board thanks to three singles, a stolen base, and a ground-out, staking themselves to a 5-2 lead. Washington threatened with a couple of walks in the top of the eighth, but stranded them all, while the Braves only scrounged up a two-out double in their part of the inning. In the top of the ninth, the Nationals went meekly in order, and Atlanta closed up their pointless 5-2 victory.

The Scorecard:
Nationals vs. Braves, 03-21-15. Braves"win," 5-2.Nationals vs. Braves, 03-21-15. Braves"win," 5-2.
Nationals vs. Braves, 03/21/15. Braves"win," 5-2.

The scorecard was part of the $6, full-color magazine, Spring Training program, as part of a centerfold pullout. Unfortunately, the pull-out was also on glossy magazine paper, making it hard to write in pencil. Each team was on separate back-to-back pages of the scorecard, with the scoring area taking up the top 2/3rds of the page, with scoring instructions in the bottom.

The batting lines had places for replacements, with batter totals at the end of each line and inning totals at the bottom of each column. The scoring squares were small, with pre-printed diamonds that made scoring a little tight. The generous area for pitching lines was under the batting lines. The background was at least a light color to allow for notes, and although there was printing behind the scoring area, it wasn't too bad.

There weren't too many interesting plays, except for a single that tried to make it into a double in the top of the third that ended as a single with a CS 8-6-3-4. Both teams did the traditional mass swap-out of players, with the Braves starting in the sixth inning, and the Nats going in the seventh. They didn't get around to announcing two of the replacement players for the Braves in the eighth, and they never got to bat, so they go sadly unnamed.

The Accommodations:
I was back at my parents' condo that evening, for one last inadequate night of sleep on a hide-a-bed that did awful things to my back.

On Regrettable Conclusions

West Palm Beach Airport
Sunday, March 22, 2015
Jersey City, NJ

Outside of the Game: 
This day started far too early for anyone's good. Before 6 AM, I rolled off the hide-a-bed and started to mechanically gather up my possessions (including my winter coat) and wandered out to my car. After some awkward fumbling in the dark, the car was sort of packed, and I was driving in the lightening night northward.

A short drive later got me to the airport, but, perhaps ironically, the rental car company's GPS was giving me bad directions to return my rental car. After some driving around in circles, I just followed the signs and got to where I needed to go. A quick transaction with the staff later, and I was off to wait for the shuttle to the terminal, which groggily disgorged me at the United area.

As I stomped my way to the gate, a representative from United stopped me to assure me my bag wouldn't fit in the overhead compartment. I told him in as polite a tone as I could muster that it fit on the plane down and it would fit on the way back. He kept after me, and I eventually told him that I bet him a checked bag fee it would fit and walked off.

Security was frustrating in other ways. I was ready to remove all my electronics and liquids, and then got to the desk to have my hands swabbed, told I didn't need to remove anything from my bag, and went through a regular metal detector. I was pretty sure it was some sort of trap, but that was it. It was some sort of pilot program they were apparently trying out. I wonder if it was called "The Common-Sense Project."

I grabbed some breakfast at Burger King, one of the only stores open at this unearthly hour, and then had a short wait for the boarding to begin. We marched onto the plane in fairly good order and took off on time. I managed it correctly this time and didn't fall asleep until we were in the air. I woke up and paid for Internet the rest of the way so I could watch funny cat pictures for the rest of the trip.

We eventually landed about a half hour early and were thrust into the cold, heartless Newark morning. At least my winter jacket kept me operational. I went to the empty taxi stand and got a short ride back to my new apartment in Jersey City and spent the rest of the afternoon doing laundry and trying to make sense of all the crap I still had with me.

The Accommodations: 
Jersey City, for a change.

2015 Grapefruit League

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