Game 114: Toledo

There was a Toledo Mudhens t-shirt in heavy rotation of my middle school wardrobe. Paul, a family friend and baseball aficionado, gifted it to me after traveling to the city and seeing a game. When I wore it, adults kept asking me if I’d watched M.A.S.H.

Yeah, I’ve seen it.

That Klinger. What a cutup, am I right?

I never made it through the credits. 

[OK, I realize now that I might have been missing the series’ finer points. Is it on Netflix?]

I didn’t like M.A.S.H. I didn’t think it was funny. But I thought the shirt was cool. I still think minor league baseball is cool (despite some reservations).

I finally made the pilgrimage to Toledo a few weeks ago. It’s a convenient pit stop between points northwest of Chicago and Washington, D.C., and I just happened to have helped move my sister to the capital city a few weeks ago.

On the way out I saw an Extended Stay America and an Applebee’s in the suburbs. On the way back I tried an AirBnB in the city and caught a Sunday-night ‘Hens game.

It was a 6:05 first pitch on a Sunday, and when I pulled up to Fifth Third Field in my parents’ minivan around 4:30, the lines at the entry gates were long. I parked on the street (meters off on Sundays), walked up to the box office and asked what was going on.

It was a youth jersey giveaway. Were there tickets available? Yes. The cheapest ticket available? $15. The best available seat for that price? Three rows behind home plate.

I took it.

Ticket secured, I grabbed a beer at Black Cloister Brewery‘s taproom, then drove back to my AirBnb. The host was a nice guy; no shirt, but he offered lots of good advice (where to eat and drink after the game, where to park, etc.). I took a quick shower and zipped back downtown to grab another beer before the game began.

It was happy hour at the frat bar across the street from the box office, Ye Olde Something Innuendo-ish. I asked for a Coors, got a Coors Lite and began drinking fast.

I’d decided at the outset of the trip to begin breaking in a new ball cap for regular use. The Mudhens t-shirt may have dissolved into my mom’s washing machine, but I’ve been leaning hard on the following headgear:

  1. a Dale Murphy-era Atlanta Braves hat,
  2. a Rock Raines-era Montreal Expos hat,
  3. an Ottis Anderson-era New York Giants hat, and
  4. a Clyde Drexler-era Trailblazers had

The new hat was a beautiful, wool cap commemorating the Green Bay Packers’ divisional championship in 1995. I grew up a Vikings fan in the gut of Wisconsin, and the hat was given to me as a gag gift. I’m no longer a Vikings fan, so I figured I might as well utilize the cap.

I wasn’t halfway through the Coors Light before a drunken ‘Sconnie got in my grill to offer his opinion that the Pack would be GOING ALL THE WAY this year … RIGHT? Stunned, I realized pretty quickly that I was wearing a green and gold hat and offered the requisite enthusiasm.

Yeah, bro. They might drop that road game in Dallas, but I can’t find a second loss on the schedule …

Meanwhile, inside the ballpark, the Twins’ triple-A affiliate, the Rochester Red Wings, dismissed the ‘Hens 2-0, courtesy solo home runs from a rehabbing Byron Buxton and an exiled Byung Ho Park.

The game took roughly two hours and 10 minutes, which meant fans interested in enjoying the fireworks display had to wait nearly an hour for sundown – with beer sales closed. Awk-ward ….

The game moved so fast, I didn’t have time to sample the ballpark cuisine. So I hoofed it another adjacent saloon, this one advertising half-priced appetizers on a sandwich board outside. And wouldn’t you know it, the bartender flipped out when she saw my hat. When I told her I wasn’t a Packers fan, she took it off my head out of disgust. I didn’t put up a fight.

Keep it, I told her. And she did.

Lesson learned: Packers fans are more work than I’m looking to attract.

  • Ballpark: Fifth Third Field, Toledo. The game moved fast, so I walked around less than I usually would. Toward the end I sneaked into the party/suite area that subtly extends out of a warehouse above right field – the most interesting thing about the ballpark from an architectural standpoint.
  • Date: July 31, 2017
  • Outcome: Rochester Red Wings 2, Toledo Mudhens 0
  • Highlight: I told Byron Buxton, on a rehab assignment, the Twins needed his services after losing four of their last five and falling out of the division chase. Buxton turned and told me he’d be flying to San Diego to join the big-league club after the game. I would’ve scooped Lavelle E. Neal III on Twitter, but my phone was dead.
  • Cuisine: They served Yuengling in the kind of stadium cups the Metrodome used to pour Summit into. Not cups, but tubs, really. I brought one home, but haven’t had the courage yet to pour all the beer I intend to drink in one night into it … even on a weekend. The beer was $9 – it struck me as fair given the amount of suds in the cup – but someone told me there was a bar in right field pouring $3 beers into much, much smaller cups.
  • Observation of the Moment: Triple-A pitchers lack velocity. Triple-A hitters lack the ability to work a count.
  • Scene: I was in Toledo for about 16 hours, so my experiences are entirely of a distinct moment in time. The downtown seemed like it would be quiet on a Sunday if it weren’t for the game, but plenty of places around the ballpark were hopping. The aforementioned Black Cloister Brewery had decent beer, and the prices at all the bars around the ballpark were fair. Just look out for overeager Packers fans.
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Game 55: Rice!

I asked Siri where to get a free Minnesota highway map. She kindly directed me to the nearest MnDOT office (Roseville), where the woman staffing the reception desk appeared at once surprised and tickled pink at my request.

She looked in her drawer and pulled out two maps, one printed in 2008 and another from 2015. I walked out with both.

The maps now hang in my basement, and I’ve been busy pricking pins into the municipalities where I’ve golfed (white pin) and sunk beers at a bar (black pin).

I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin. My dad made himself at home in one of its disproportionate number of taverns. A regular at the bar – nice guy, lifer at the factory in town, long since maxed out his vacation accrual – was using his five weeks per year to pursue a goal that struck inspiration in both of our hearts: golfing every one of the state’s municipal courses.

So I got myself a map …

The first 75-degree day we had in Minnesota this year (5/13), I spent nearly two hours in the car to meet my golf partner in Rice, Minn.

No pin there.

We played Oak Hill Golf Club. It’s not a municipal course, but it is under new management. Full bar, kitchen and $24 for 18 holes on foot. $35 with a cart.

The price was right. The course was challenging but fair, and interesting enough given the price. Any further north, in my experience, and hitting one into the “woods” would mean disaster. Here, you could punch out – maybe even conceive an angle to the green. But accuracy certainly had its reward.

Rice, meanwhile, has more going for it off the highway (U.S. 10) than on it. We walked out of Rumors – which I must have driven past 100 times on my way to the family cabin, glancing with an envious eye at all the cars driven by people already enjoying happy hour – without ordering a drink.

We ate wings at the muni bar with cheap Miller Lites on the main drag, then chased a meat raffle at the Irish bar with a giant patio area down the street, only to find out it’d been canceled. We hung out for a pizza (OK) and a game of horseshoes. (How do old people play this game? I’m 37 years old, and I have to take a running start to sling that hunk of metal all the way to the sand pit.)

It was slow, but the bachelorette party arrived just as we were leaving. One can only imagine how the town might hop in the heat of summer …

Game 30: What you know about that?

I settled into an unclaimed seat – upper deck, behind the plate, one of thousands – at Target Field about 15 minutes after first pitch. That was OK with me because, as much as I like Hector Santiago and his screwball, I’d taken the Green Line to see Justin Verlander.

By the time I had secured a beer and a program, dodged the usher-nazis and found a seat, Verlander was facing Twins cleanup hitter and Kemps ice cream spokesman Joe Mauer. Miguel Sano, who Verlander dodged all night, was on first base.

I knew it was Mauer because the T.I. banger “What You Know” had just blared over the stadium’s seemingly louder (alternative explanation: I am getting older) loudspeakers. It’s been Mauer’s walk-up music since he and Justin Morneau were carpooling to the Metrodome.

Expecting Mauer to freshen up his approach at the plate this year? Maybe swing at that first-pitch strike or try yanking one into the pansies in right? All you need to know is the guy still feels walk-up music released in 2006. He and T.I., who hasn’t had a No. 1 hit since 2008, are aging comparably.

Target Field was a strange place the April after the Twins lost a club-record 103 games. The stands were empty but the bars were full: the new ones in center field, the shitshow overhanging the left-field corner, the ones upstairs behind home plate.

In the third deck the concession stands were mostly shuttered, and the bars were the only place to get a beer besides Bud Light. The lines got deep in a hurry, and I moved on rather than stand around with my ass facing the action.

Downstairs, my reward was a self-proclaimed “drunk college student” who budged in front of me in line to get a Gatorade. “I don’t know what to tell you, bro,” she said when I protested.

Shit’s loud now too, man. I’m all for trying to get the crowd going, but they’re pumping faux-metal and tecno music in when a pitcher gets two strikes on a batter with one on in the second inning, with a graphic that reads “GET LOUD” or “MAKE SOME NOISE”. It’s more than a little obnoxious.

And it’s pointless. Anyone duped into overexerting themselves stops as soon as the music cuts out, and that happens (thanks MLB rules!) as soon as the pitcher comes set. So you get artificial noise followed by light screaming and clapping that quickly dies out before the pitch.

Maybe we just watch the game?

Game 14: Shame

Phil Hughes pitched Tuesday night at Target Field. He’s a fly-ball pitcher, and in the first inning, one of those fly balls came Max Kepler’s way in right field. Max biffed biffed it, spotting Cleveland to a 3-0 lead in the first inning.

Our Twins aren’t in Cleveland’s class, but to remain relevant this season (read: pay off my “over 74.5 wins” wager) they likely will need to steal a quarter or third of their games against the Racist Mascots. Such theft isn’t likely if they’re giving away runs in the first inning.

OK, so Max messed up. Obviously, he feels pretty bad about the whole thing. No need to dwell on it … or is there, Twins beat writers?

“Took my eyes off it. Made a mistake. Stuff happens.”

That’s Kepler’s no-shit quote in the Pioneer Press’ fourth paragraph. LaVelle E. Neal The Third offers a scrubbed version in the Strib. Makes you wonder if they drew straws in the press box to determine who’d ask Max what happened on that fly ball. (And who lost?)

In the beat writers’ defense, it’s entirely possible our man responds with something like:

“Had my mind on Trump. What’s with Syria? Those Russians …”

I haven’t spent any meaningful time around Max. The closest I got was in the Arizona Fall League two years ago. I watched him play three straight games – all meaningless, according to his countryman Fred Nietszche – and never saw the guy crack a smile once.

He seems a serious sort. Certainly, he’s professional in his approach – one that’s served him well, even if it might lend itself to an appearance of dispassion.

An outfielder knows he’ll miss some fly balls throughout the course of a year. A plumber knows sometimes he’ll fail to fix the clog. Asking for an explanation is an exercise in futility; what you’re really looking for with that question – what happened on the fly ball? why can’t you fix my toilet? – is humility.

Professionals understand failure is a part of the job. You can only hope to limit it.

But Max showed no shame Tuesday night, and I find it pretty fascinating. I’m witnessing — that’s too passive a word for the father involved in this story, but whatever — my 3-year-old daughter’s sense of shame develop. Had she butchered that ball in right field, let me tell you, she’d have curled up in a ball on the outfield grass and left a dead spot.

It’s a fine line, shame and humility. Obviously, I don’t want my daughter to feel ashamed about anything she does at this stage in her life, but I want to guide her toward making responsible choices. I’m not much on shame, but if it’s a path toward humility …

… I’d better read up on the subject. Go Wild.

Game 6: Bring your own

The Twins’ second regular season game — a win, as five of their first six have been, bitches — drew an announced crowd of 15,171 humans, the lowest reported attendance for a regular season MLB game in Target Field’s existence.

Twins bean counters saw this coming. Within a month of opening day, the team announced it would offer a digital-only pass (so these cheapskates can’t resell their tickets!) to all 30 home games in April and May for just $99.

The sales pitch tugged at a weak spot: my inner 20-something, who fancies himself a man about town, taking in a scene with a discriminating eye, passionate enough to invest in a baseball team on the come.

[In reality, my 37-year-old self fancies nothing more than slumbering past 7 a.m. after successfully coaxing his 3-year-old daughter to sleep by bedtime. The only “scene” he’s taking in these days is Library Story Time and the stroller circuit at his local park.]

Would I have sprung for the 30 tickets as a younger man? Probably.

At the peak of Ron Gardenhire’s Metrodome run — the Lew Ford-Carlos Silva-Pat Neshek years, until the Twins moved into Target Field — I paid $199-250 per year for General Admission tickets to all 81 games. In a good year, I used maybe half of the tickets, but the convenience and season-ticket-holder perks (free media notes, popcorn and a pass that got you past the usher and into the lower bowl) made it worthwhile.

One big difference between then (2004-07) and now? The beer prices.

A guy could get a stadium cup of Summit EPA for less than $7 in the Metrodome. It was the same price as a Bud Light with twice the flavor — and punch. And the cup was huge. It must have held two bottles’ worth of beer, if not more.

It’s $10.50 for a large draft beer now, up from $9.50 last year. And let’s just say the Target Field cup would fit comfortably inside Hubert Humphrey’s model.

The scene went from dive bar to rooftop patio, and I’m the old guy grumping about how things were MORE PURE in his day. There were no bars, no skyline views, no exclusive experiences. Just baseball on carpet, under a Polytetrafluoroethylene sky.

So yeah, it’s a different crowd now. People want Instagram moments, Snapchat-worthy experiences and food that transcends peanuts, crackerjacks and Dollar Dog Night.

Cool. I love good food too. And I was inspired by the reporting in Star Tribune’s Taste section — the TASTE SECTION! — last week to compile a list of my own top-5 favorite Target Field treats. Here they are:

5. A bag of chips, previously opened or unopened. Buy it for $2 at the grocery store, and enjoy the crunch all game!

4. Apples, carrots, oranges or celery, stashed in my backpack. Healthy, yes. But there’s something less satisfying about crushing the orange peels under your seat than the peanut shells.

3. The bratwurst I grilled last night, microwaved, nestled in a bun with accoutrements, wrapped in tin foil and stored in the lower pocket of my cargo shorts. I’m convinced of this: The longer you wait to dig it out, the more alcohol it soaks up.

2. Bulk, salted-in-shell peanuts from my local grocer, purchased at $1.49 per pound. If Target Field had a thriving street vendor scene — with loudmouthed guys hawking nuts and waters and airplane-sized botttles of Seagram’s whiskey on your way into the ballgame — I might be inclined not to bring my own.

1. Grilled chicken, cold. (Or a pork chop, if applicable). I’ve yet to see a charcoal grill in Target Field. Bust out a drumstick, thigh or pork chop you grilled the night before (with or without the aforementioned carrots) and you’ve got yourself a savory, healthy meal — and saved a cool $12 you can spend on your next Summit. Go Twins!

Game 2: Everyone’s screaming at me

Twins brass tipped their hand when Manager(?) Paul Molitor dropped prodigal son Joe Mauer into the cleanup spot in his lineup for the season opener. Fortunately for those of us with money on his club to surpass 74.5 wins this season, Molitor’s Bat Signal has gone unnoticed, so far, by Royals pitchers.

(Rest in peace, Yordano Ventura. I waste time in two fantasy baseball leagues. In one, I draft only foreign players; in the other, I draft only players who measure six feet or under. Ventura’s height, nationality and temperament had him on a Hall of Fame track in my universe.)

These Twins are walking a lot.

I don’t imagine that’s a coincidental result — not given the slugging percentage (.389) and on-base percentage (.358) that their newfound cleanup hitter boasted last year. Nor given the installment as designated hitter of Robbie Grossman (career .386 OBP) over sluggers like Byung Ho Park (.278 OBP) and, perhaps, Kennys Vargas (.309 OBP).

It’s no surprise here that Derek Falvey and Thad Levine, the Twins’ new ball-ops bros, buy into the well-established doctrine that getting on base is the key to scoring runs. (I’m not going to throw dirt on Terry Ryan here; we can suss that out some other time.) What does surprise me — or, at least, what caught my eye in the box score — is the lineup change, and what it says about who’s calling the shots.

If Paul Molitor wanted to bat Joe Mauer fourth, he had 162 opportunities last year (and 162 more the year before) to do so. Yet according to the guys I sometimes suffer through on the radio (one of whom is, for my money, the best Twins analyst in town), Mauer hit cleanup fewer than 10 times in his entire career prior to Monday’s opener.

So … either a manager in the final year of his contract is throwing darts at the wall to see what sticks, or he’s taking marching orders from a couple hands-on executives gearing up (and saving up? by not firing him?) for a pennant push in 2019. I surmise this — a willingness to follow directions — might also explain the decision to keep Neal Allen.

Speaking of following directions … my girls (5 months and 3.2 years) and I enjoyed the opener together at home. I did my best to celebrate the occasion. My youngest wore a Twins onesie. I grilled bratwurst. We put the Dazzle Man on the radio.

But it’s a change of pace after years of wading through the drunken sea of weekend-warrior drinkers who make Opening Day a premium-price ticket on the Twins’ schedule.

I was the only one in the house who cared that the Twins won their first opener in six years. I was the only one in the house who didn’t need help having a bowel movement, too.

At least we know who’s calling the shots here.

Football free in the 55103 (that’s my zip code)

Cam Newton got drilled late in the NFL’s Thursday-night opener. It was a helmet-to-helmet hit (there were several) that came on the game’s last drive, as Cam was being cut low by a second Broncos defender. Brutal and intentional, it drew a penalty flag.

No shit, that’s a penalty.

Unless, apparently, the quarterback intentionally grounds the football before getting his head bounced off the field turf, as Newton did. In that case, the penalties offset, and the offense gets to replay the down with its concussed QB.

So this is how the NFL plans to step up efforts to protect players from brain injury.

The Frontline documentary “League of Denial” made me feel dirty for watching pro football. But I could still justify following — OK, enjoying — the NFL because I don’t buy tickets to games or pay attention to its TV sponsors.

But that Thursday-night game felt like a tipping point.

Maybe it’s the $1 billion Death Star that swelled up like a goiter on the skyline of my neighboring city. Certainly, the Electronic Pull-tab scheme crafted to pay for it didn’t help. And who could ignore the mouth-breathing Trump voters burning 49ers’ jerseys on Facebook Live lately?

Anyway, I haven’t watched football since. And I don’t much miss it.

As beautifully as the game translates onto the TV screen, the product on the field stinks in nine games out of 10. Teams have become so universally risk-averse, with coaches looking to limit turnovers and “shorten the game,” that nothing seems to happen of consequence until the final two minutes of either half. (Like basketball, except with fewer fast breaks and more field goals.) It’s boring – unless …

Unless you play fantasy football. Or gamble. Or drink beer, especially at a bar. And I do all three!

I particularly like the latter two activities, and while I expect the baseball playoffs will provide some opportunity to make bets and occupy bar stools for the next month or so, I anticipate falling off the football wagon sometime around Thanksgiving.

Maybe distance will make the heart grow fonder. But for now I’m living clean and loving every minute of it.

Skol!