Saturday, July 29, 2006

Texas by the turn signal light: Day 11

Stadium scatter-shooting around the Texas League
One of the reasons for taking this particular route was to see minor league baseball in other Texas cities. Excluding Midland, home of the Rockhounds (and just too remote for inclusion), there are four communities that sport MILB franchises – Frisco (in our own backyard), Corpus Christi, Round Rock (CC’s home up until two years ago) and San Antonio (a longtime outpost dating to 1888). Round Rock is Class AAA and the others belong and battle in the Class 2A Texas League – one of the oldest organized minor leagues in baseball.
This isn’t like comparing apples to oranges but every baseball presentation is different, from city to city. In San Antonio, it was quite laid-back and almost lethargic. In Frisco, it is often too sterile while Corpus Christi goes hog wild for its relatively new team.
Here’s what one fan thought (all you non-baseball fans can skip down to the end):
At Corpus Christi’s Whataburger Field (sorry, no there is NO tacquito section), the very first thing a fan notices in the view – unbelievable sight lines, notably, the Harbor Bridge over the right field fence and the USS Lexington further down the right field line. Barges and ships pass each other in the port area, heading to and from the Gulf, horns sounding, over the left-field fence. More than one 18-wheeler will blast its airhorn as it passes the stadium on the bridge during games.
In Frisco, you see the Embassy Suites hotel and in San Antonio, you see traffic on U.S. 90 at Lackland Air Force Base. At night, you hear the training jets, but there is really no comparison. However, if you’re lucky enough, a fleet of massive C-140 transport planes will swoop in for Lackland landing behind the left field area. It IS impressive.
The Dell Diamond, located in the hinterlands of Round Rock, has itself to see (a left field home run porch and a play area and a Texadelphia outlet in right field).
Whataburger Field is located in an old industrial area that was once far from desirable for anything but the port trade. Now it is a revenue-generating tourist destination for families.
Wolff Stadium is located next to Lackland Air Force Base and nothing else exists near it – no development, commercial or residential. In Frisco, Dr Pepper Ballpark seems to be shoehorned among buildings like weeds in a field. A hotel, convention center, hockey arena and huge shopping mall (plus an IKEA store) exists where only prairie dogs once roamed as little as a decade before. As said, Dell Diamond is fairly remote – 3 ½ miles away from the interstate with only one entry road for traffic up to 4,000 cars (and crowds in excess of 11,000 – the largest of the four stadiums).
Whataburger Field has a pool for private party rental and a rock climbing area behind the center field backdrop. Basketball hoops are near bullpen and well as a fully-equipped Little League field behind the center-field area. It is a VERY kid friendly ballpark. If the wind is right, and blows from the Gulf, it makes for a wholly pleasant summer’s evening.
One potential problem? Gulls in the outfield (“Houston, the seagulls have landed”). Hope nothing bad happens to make it to a Sportscenter highlight (or low light).
Frisco and San Antonio have children’s play areas in the outfield, but not to the extent of Corpus or Round Rock.
San Antonio’s Nelson Wolff Stadium, built in 1994 on the city’s south side and named for its former mayor, is NOT “the jewel of the Texas League.” Far from it. It tries hard to replicate the experience from old V.J. Keefe Field, on the campus of St. Mary’s University, which was SO fan-friendly as not to be believed. The seats are in two sections separated by a concourse and there is general admission bench seating down both outfield lines (by the bullpens) and in the upper rows of the second section (under the press box level suites).
In the outfield, the walls consist of painted advertising signs (compared to more modern versions in Corpus Christi and Frisco). In right field, the signs are double decked, ranging from Hamburger Helper to a local chiropractor. There is a grass hill for lawn seating in left field, but not in right or center.
The San Antonio seating is very close to the action, which was always a special feature of V.J. Keefe. You could almost touch the player in the on deck circle and certainly hold conversations with him without bothering anyone at the plate. Of the four cities, you are closest in San Antonio and the tickets were the cheapest.
It was sad to see that only 3,304 Missions fans attended this particular Monday night game on a hot summer evening to see a first-place battle with the new rival Hooks. And the crowd was lifeless, not aided by veteran PA announcer Stan Kelly’s laid-back style which did nothing to pump up the folks. Only back-to-back home runs in the seventh inning lit any kind of fire under their seats and half of them departed after that.
In San Antonio, Round Rock and Corpus Christi, games start in the same way. Youth baseball league players escort each home team start to their position for the anthem. I haven’t recall that happening in Frisco and that is a missed opportunity to connect with young fans.
The Hooks nor the Express (Spike the Dog) do not use their mascots to beat down the crowd. There’s no DJ with a microphone sparring everyone to death between innings. Truth in reporting demands that I note that Sammy the Seagull is anatomically incorrect (he has a yellow beek like an eagle, not a black one like a gull). CC’s other mascot is a worm, Rusty (Hook?). He is the second banana … or bait.
The San Antonio Mission mascot is “Ballapeno,” a short green thing that does stuff between innings and hits on pretty girls in the stands. For old times’ sake, there is good old Henry the Puffy Taco – a holdover although from the Keefe days – not an apparent sponsor. Also his uniform needed mending (how tacky!). Henry has seen better days.
Frisco’s mascot, Deuce (the horse), is more of a star. Unfortunately, the RoughRiders use that DJ system to stir up emotion among the sedated fans.
Corpus Christi skillfully employs video clips on its left-field scoreboard as entertainment factor, almost after each batter, much better than its sister team in Round Rock. San Antonio can only use the PA system and a scoreboard that seems to be stuck in 1980s graphics. Frisco has a more modern video approach, but does not utilize it to the extent of Whataburger Field.
Also, small things count. For example, the Hooks and Express (same ownership group) have the best damn scorebook for $2 – a full four-color amazing publication. But an individual scorecard would be nice so it doesn’t mar the beauty of the souvenir book.
In San Antonio, the scorebook is part of the prize giveaway but for $3, you’d think someone could at least proof the copy for grammatical and spelling errors (as many miscues as the Missions committed on this night – 4). Frisco distributes a complimentary booklet, “Play Ball!” which is good for fans but not possessing much insight.
The Wolff men’s room absolutely reeked and looked worn out, and the toilet seat in the handicapped stall was so discolored as to be unusable. Rest rooms at Frisco and Corpus Christi were much cleaner.
Concessions are very important since chances are a meal must be involved for a game starting at 7:05 p.m. Again, San Antonio comes up short compared to its Texas League cohorts.
Corpus Christi and Round Rock sell everything (hot dogs, hamburgers, barbecue, a full Whataburger menu in CC but no taquitos, sorry) from funnel cakes (State Fair-style) in the stands to those big, nasty, sour dill pickles (this IS Texas after all). As said, there is Texadelphia in Round Rock. Since Nolan Ryan is a major owner in the Corpus/Round Rock franchises, his brand of beef products are offered. The “sirloin dog” is actually a huge (1 pound) sausage for only $4.75.
The biggest disappoint at Corpus Christi was to discover that the Ryan bratwursts were all sold out before the fifth inning.
San Antonio didn’t even offer half of what it advertised in its program. The barbecue stand down the left field line was close and several other items failed to be included in the main concourse stands. What was sold was lukewarm in terms of taste and quality.
And the sin of all sins happened at Wolff Stadium – no souvenir drink cups offered … at all … for anything. In Corpus Christi, the margaritas, beer and sodas all came in either plastic cups or huge refillable tanker mugs (for a discount on sodas), bearing the Hooks logo. Frisco has several different sizes of souvenir cups.
No one has told anyone in San Antonio that to sell a cup that doubles as a reminder of the team is to create a fan. The drinks are already high enough o expect something other than a paper cup.
The fans in Corpus Christi seem to have more of an emotional investment than, say, Frisco, and certainly more than San Antonio where the NBA Spurs trump everything and everyone. It remains a mystery why the second largest city in Texas and the seventh largest in the nation has but one major league sport (pro basketball) and no NFL or MLB squad.
In Corpus Christi, the Hooks ARE big news in a city of 275,000. Fans know their players and react accordingly. The season ticket holder base is strong (yes, it’s just the second year), but San Antonio seems to be more of a commuter team with far smaller number of season-ticket holders.
The Hooks organization is seeking ways to make the Whataburger Field experience better each season. Team executives communicate during the game with various fans, seeking input. No Missions executive could be found.
The Hooks club is also involved with several children’s charities and support groups in Coastal Bend region. The Missions promote a golf tournament and the RoughRiders are, well, the “other” baseball team owned by Tom Hicks in the Metroplex.
Round Rock is also involved in its community but the heavy presence of the University of Texas makes it a far more upscale crowd, not unlike Frisco, late in arriving and all too often early to leave – fireworks or no fireworks post-game.
Overheard at the stadium:
God bless my wife for putting up with my near-obsession with baseball. It takes a strong person to listen (even if she turns a deaf ear, she at least, pretends to be interested) to the virtues of the designated hitter and why men with strange machines are writing down the speed of the fastball from some Class AA reliever.
So dedicated to her are the sayings of my wife, Jodie, the baseball savant:
“He’s batting .207; is that bad? Is .359 good?”
“The home team got a run; great, it’s not going to be a no-hitter! … OK, it’s not a no-runner.”
(During a ninth-inning rally) “If they tie, do we go into overtime?”
In San Antonio, looking at the scoreboard: “Why do they spell the guy’s name with a ‘C?’ It’s Guillermo; that doesn’t have a ‘C.’”
“Ah, no, honey, ‘C’ stands for catcher – the position he’s playing.”
“Why do they wear white and grey uniforms? They blend too much at twilight. Why not wear pink, or something?”
“These people on the dugout? Are they cheerleaders? Yell leaders? Or just staff people?”
Finally my wife, the critic:
“At best, this is a single A ballpark.”

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