Off we go.
By the time Monday morning rolled around, Kyra and I had finally caught our breath and settled down a bit in our Airbnb. We were more than ready to take on the real reason we traveled over 1,700 miles – to see our home away from home, the land I’ve only ever seen on TV, the place that still seemed too good to be true – Sloan Park.
After just a single baseball filled day, it was time to take a break and enjoy the finer things Arizona had to offer. It wasn’t that we’d seen TOO much baseball already, but the timing for this off day just happened to fit perfectly into our schedule. It didn’t take long at all after we arrived to appreciate the scenery and landscape in this area which is so radically different from what we see at home. Exotic plants, styles of buildings, the beautiful red-orange mountains in the distance; and that was just downtown in the most urban areas!
The best part about our adventure today is that we were driving almost an hour Northeast of the city to Lost Dutchman State Park. Outside of Chicago where you don’t have to fight awful traffic everywhere you go, an hour can get you pretty far. Phoenix isn’t all that large and sprawling to begin with, so we were WAY out in the middle of the desert after about 15 minutes on the highway.
It was an early morning. They would all be that way this week. For the most part, my general itinerary stayed the same for each day.
I would be Ballhawking BP at a different place than I’d be watching the day’s game. It’s a little known fact that every Cactus League team hits at their OWN park, then busses over to where they’re playing that day at the last possible minute. I was also going to wait until the last minute, but took it a step further as far as using the game schedules to my advantage. I made sure to see BP when the hitting team was playing very close to their own complex.
Today’s BP was at Cubs Park, when the Cubs (and I, coincidentally) would be at Salt River Fields in the afternoon, which was just 15 minutes away. This was much more favorable than if the Cubs were visiting the Padres, who’s complex in Peoria was nearly an hour away. I was sure to give myself the potential for the most BP time each day.
First off, it appears I’ve picked up a few more followers this off-season, despite my limited posting activity. To those new friends, Ballhawks, and fellow baseball fans: Hello and welcome! I hope you enjoy my unique topics and the style of writing I’ve developed over the last few years. I really look forward to describing my musings to you right here on BaseBlog! Before we chat too much, let’s get right down to it, shall we?
The only reason I’ve been putting off this entry for so long is because I had no clue how to start it. I had many long winded stories of how I was never interested enough in prospects when I was younger, how Theo Epstein has built almost the unanimous choice for the best farm system in baseball, and how it was “THE” time to see these young guys flourishing while on the brink of making their major league debuts with the Cubs. Instead of that, here’s a smaller list of the main points:
- Lets start with why I’ve never gone to Spring Training up to this point. In the days when the Cubs were good, guys like Lee, Ramirez, Theriot, Soriano, Soto, and Fukudome were the only guys I cared about. In 2009 or 2010, why would I want to see that one pitcher from Double-A who wears number 86 and will fade into oblivion when the season started? As far as I was concerned, the games in Mesa were useless. I’d just wait until April to see a real game without having to travel 1,500 miles.
- In the early part of 2013, around the time the Cubs Convention was going on, it seemed the only news I heard regarding the team was about prospects. Baez, Soler, Almora, Edwards, Russell and a handful of others. Theo and Jed were starting to build a young army of these “prospects”. This was still a rather foreign word to me, and which I only saw in the footnotes of many Jim Hendry trades. Soon, those regulars from point number one faded, one by one, and the only positive thing to follow with my team was draft picks, prospect trades, and the minor league system.
- It’s easy to say now at the end of the month, but Spring Training 2015 may be the peak of minor league talent in the organization. Words cannot describe what impact I think Kris Bryant will have if everything goes according to plan. Other young guys like Alcantara or Hendricks are even stepping up to bridge the gap until the top prospects are fully developed. I won’t toot my horn about this too much more, because I know some people will call me out for being too optimistic. This much is certain, however: It is probably the most sustained period of excitement I’ve had about the Cubs in my entire life.
- I had an awesome internship last summer that paid me an awesome wage. I had a few extra bucks to spend. On a related note, this would be my last Spring Break ever, and I had yet to take any type of vacation during one of these weeks. Mixed with my animosity of growing up, I was desperate to do something a little crazy.
- My girlfriend Kyra and I have never gone on a real vacation together. Even though more than 80% of the trip was because of baseball, it was still an exciting “first” for us.
So, that’s how we got to this point. Lots of thought went into this trip, but nothing too remarkable was involved in that. We booked our plane tickets in December, and it was official. After being scared to pull the trigger the last two seasons, I finally took a risk and followed through. I was excited to the point of shock. Less than three months and just half a semester from that day, I’d be landing in Phoenix.
I’ve made exactly one post since last September. Or, at least, what should have been September but nearly turned into December. I didn’t necessarily want to abandon the blog for that long, but you know the story: school, work, time commitments, and other things of that nature. Truthfully, I wanted to take a break and not worry about it for a while. Once I made it clear to myself that I wouldn’t be attempting to post in the off-season or the beginning of 2015, it felt like I took a huge source of stress out of my life. It was really nice. Sure, I wished I could devote a large amount of time to it, but wishing is not the same as trying to meet expectations you know you can’t handle. There wasn’t a whole ton that happened that I could write well about, with the exception of the Bleacher Renovation project. What I had to say wasn’t just another drop in the bucket of Jon Lester and Joe Maddon articles you could find on any sports site on the internet. I felt it was an interesting topic that I could give a unique viewpoint on.
As of this second, I’m back. I’m going to attempt to come out of hibernation and try to put together quality entries that make my experiences sound interesting. Why now? Because in approximately *checks clock* 15 hours, I will be on my way to my first game of the season in Phoenix. Something I’ve seriously considered doing for three years is finally happening tomorrow. I could say I’m excited, but I’m more curious than anything else. I know what to expect from regular season games, but this is a whole different situation. Parks are only minutes from one another. Teams take BP on the backfields at their home facility before games, meaning I have dozens of outfields to choose from before heading to a game on a certain day. It’s something I’m so used to, yet have no idea how to go about. It’ll be an interesting four days.
In my 5 night trip, I’ll see four baseball games. Friday night will be my first ever college game, as I watch ASU take on Long Beach State at their brand new home in Phoenix Muni. Saturday is at Salt River Fields, Monday is at the toilet bowl (“Sloan Park”. Yuck), and the third game is yet to be decided. I’ll see what happens during the first few games and pick the place that will work best for me.
What do I want to do there? Catch a lot of balls, if you can believe that. Setting the bar at 10 per MLB game is high, yet reasonable. I may grab a boatload more, or significantly less than that. I truly have no idea. But from what I’ve heard, it is very, very possible if I quickly figure out what I’m doing.
The next item on the list is to get a new Manfred ball. Supposedly the guy has such a big head, he told every team they needed to get rid of every single Selig ball they had. I’m assuming they’ll be plentiful and I’ll be able to get this one done with no problem.
Those are really the only two I know of so far. Again, this is so foreign to me, I have no idea what’s appropriate or possible, or how exactly I’ll feel about being there. It will be on the extreme “good” side obviously, but in what way?
This entry is short and sweet, but is kind of a tradition for me on the eve of my first baseball event of the new year. TOMORROW, it all begins again.
Even with all the exciting news surrounding the Cubs in the past three or four months, I haven’t felt a need to comment or give my thoughts on what the organization is doing on this particular BaseBlog. There are plenty of other bloggers, writers, analysts, and fans to help you get the full picture of what’s happening with the team. I’m not particularly good at expressing intelligent opinions on these matters, anyway. My strength is not looking at stats and making comparisons that affect call-ups, trades, free agent signings, and the like. My area of expertise is knowing the best place to go for a game home run at Coors Field, or any other park for that matter. There’s actually a really great wheelchair aisle and walkway in left field in Colorado where you….never mind.
With the 30th annual Cubs Convention taking place this past weekend, there was a slather of news about the things I listed above that I’m not good at. The one piece of unconventional news, however, was the state of the Bleacher renovation project. Numerous writers and bloggers noted back in November that not much was going on after the existing seats were brought down. Later in December, it got very cold and started to snow a little, which meant that some days there wasn’t a single worker present. This obviously generated rumors and speculation that the seats and new outfield concourse wouldn’t be finished in time. Personally, I thought there was no way that could happen. It would be an embarrassment for the front office, cause a huge revenue downturn, and be a huge eye sore until people were allowed to sit there. I had faith that Tom Ricketts would somehow get it done in time for Opening Night, no matter the cost or level of desperation.
Lo and behold, the speculations became reality, when it was revealed on Saturday “at the 2 PM session” (as Tom stated plenty of times when people asked about it up to that point) that the project was TWO MONTHS behind. This wasn’t a little problem. It was a complete meltdown. I immediately had clear visions of watching Opening Night from the upper deck and seeing cement trucks, rubble, and bundles of steel bars beyond the ivy covered walls.
The long and short of the situation for the Cubs is that there will be not be a single outfield seat for at least 15 home games. The team has already given multiple options to Bleacher season ticket holders as to how they want to handle their seats (refund, account credit, or relocation to another part of the park). The 2015 home schedule tells us that the absolute soonest any small part of the Bleachers will be finished is May 11th. I knew the project was in trouble, but had no idea it was this large. An entire month of the season will have passed before things get back to any type of normalcy.
To most people, this is just news. It may be more interesting to some of the die-hard fans, but it probably doesn’t reach far beyond that. Most of the 5,000 people in the Bleachers (if the game is sold out, that is) don’t care where they sit. They just happen to gravitate to the Bleachers because that’s where the most drinking takes place. I’m willing to say that less than 25% of the people who sit out there have a strong devotion to a specific section of bench, as is the case for many Season Ticket regulars. This 25% is disappointed, but maybe only half of this smaller group are genuinely displeased or angered by this situation. I am included in an even smaller subset group that may only consist of 15 or 20 people. This news shatters my normal life at the ballpark. Not just ANY ballpark. MY ballpark. This is literally the single worst thing that can happen to a Ballhawk.
Since I’m someone who is greatly affected by this news, I wanted to get my thoughts and reactions out in the open. I feel like many people are curious about what I have to say on the issue and what my Plan B is for the first month of the season.
While the 2006 Bleacher renovation encountered no problems and opened on time, these things occasionally happen in large scale construction projects. In fact, many of my friends and fellow baseball fans fail to remember this happening when Busch Stadium was being built in 2005, and opened in 2006. There were a handful of games at the beginning of the season with some sections not yet opened.
In this context, the baseball off-season is very short. Six months is not such a large amount of time to rebuild a huge part of a historic ballpark that needs to be treated with care. Falling behind was nothing the construction crews or the front office could have prevented. Work began the day after the Cubs season was over, and was going well until they tore up the street to start building the larger foundation for the seats and video board. They found pipes and water mains that were in terrible, terrible shape, even when you consider they’re 100 years old. You can’t build on that and hope for the impossible that they’ll last another 80 years without encountering any problems. For this, I don’t blame them. It’s not the worst thing that could have happened in regards to the construction. Just off the top of my head, I’d say taking out the wrong support beam and sending the scoreboard crashing to the corner of Sheffield and Waveland would probably be the worst thing. Tom’s motto has been to complete the project safely and the right way. And they solved this problem by following that motto. Credit to him for sticking to his guns without lying to try and make the situation better.
First, this mess hardly effects me personally, in the larger scheme of things. I may have gone to Opening Night and one more game while I was still in school. May 11th will be the first home game after I come home for the summer. It almost works out perfectly. Yes, it’s a little bit of a bummer that my chances for an Opening Day ball are diminished, but it’s mostly relief. I don’t have to make the tough decision of whether a trip home is worth the $80 it would cost me for gas and tickets. If anything, it gives me the chance to enjoy the first game of the year with some of my friends who are huge baseball fans and not have a care in the world. Nobody is out there, so there’s nothing I’m missing out on. Beyond that, I just have to wait until they’re done. There’s literally no way to fix it.
Secondly, it adds a temporary nuance and an obstacle to my most visited park. Whatever happens beyond the wall has zero impact on what takes place on the field. Now, in three and a half months, I’m sure there will be some sort of structure to take the place of the giant hole in what was once Waveland Avenue. Even when the seats are longer and it will take A LOT more power to hit a ball out of the park, it will still happen a handful of times. Where will I be able to stand out on Waveland? Will any balls reach my spot? How many will fall into the black hole between the construction fence and the outfield wall? But most importantly: where will those ‘black hole’ balls eventually end up? I sure hope it’s between a sharpie and a rubber band on the end of a string.
Next, before the big finish, I just want to state the obvious. This isn’t the only park I can go to. I’ll substitute the games I’m missing at Wrigley with ones in Milwaukee and at the Cell. Nothing spectacular about that. Going back to point numero uno, this also takes a load off my mind when I decide I have time for a game. For Wrigley, I need to check the price level, estimate how many people will show up at which times, and hope to God that my Season Ticket guys have something available. I’ve been screwed over numerous times (mostly weather related) because I have to buy all my Wrigley tickets in February to ensure I get to use the VIP gate. You know what I have to do for the other places? Buy the cheapest seat available ten minutes before I leave for the park. That’s it.
I haven’t realized how much I hate the one-of-a-kind dynamic of everything that is the Wrigley Field Bleachers. Now, I don’t have to spend so much time and energy putting my season schedule in place. I can see how it goes and where I stand on May 11th, and make adjustments if needed. By a stroke of luck, this is the perfect situation for what I’m dealing with this summer. From the second I graduate, I’ll be spending 25 to 30 hours a week studying for the CPA exam. I have no idea when my schedule will allow games or require more studying. I can take those problems as they come, and not have to balance baseball with a test that costs more to take than the value of my car. I’m all about fitting baseball into normal life, but not at a cost of $6,500 and slow career growth for the rest of my life.
And now, finally, the saving grace of this whole mess. The thing that truly made me say “This isn’t all that bad. In fact, I’m happy it worked out like this!”
Being home at the earliest projected date on May 11th ensures I’ll be able to see the very first game in person when they finally open; which is exactly what I plan to do. As soon as I notice they’re selling tickets for the Bleachers, I’ll go on a manhunt for a VIP ticket, which will possibly make me the very first fan to ever step in the new Wrigley Field Bleachers, or the very first fan to ever catch a ball out there. Cool, right? I think so too. The best part is that it’s so easy. The fact that they’re willing to sell tickets means they’re absolutely positive the job will be finished. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if it went past May 11th though, so I’ll keep myself up to date and see how this plays out.
So, essentially, my point is that this isn’t a disaster. It actually works out better than I could have planned it myself, save for missing a maximum of two games I would have gone to if they finished construction on time. It also provides me with a unique and unexpected opportunity to do something for the first time at Wrigley. Now that the calendar has flipped over, this is exactly the type of thing I needed to get my blood pumping for the regular season.
A little after the fact here in December, I can now say that I’m closing the book on my fourth season as a Ballhawk. You’re probably getting tired of hearing it by now since I say it every year at this time, but this was once again my best and most favorite season yet. I’ve started each year with a different focus and mindset, which has allowed me to grow in numerous ways and focus on different and unique aspects of my favorite hobby. One would think a person can only go to so many baseball games before they’ve done it all, which leaves them feeling rather bored. But even now, in the dead of winter, plans are being made to experience even more things that I’ve never attempted to try before.
Now that 2014 is finished, a year in which I felt I would reach the pinnacle of everything I was capable of, I can still find something to look forward to. There will always be something else to look forward to that I haven’t done. I finally understand the thought process of my role models who’s success I aspire to replicate. There is ALWAYS something bigger to strive for. There are ALWAYS new things to dream about and experience. But most of all, there will ALWAYS be another ball.
In the aftermath of the most difficult summer I’d ever encountered in terms of conflicts with games, I still come out with an optimistic attitude. I learned that it’s not about numbers, whether that’s balls, games, miles driven, or parks visited (even though I usually put lots of importance in those things). It’s about challenging yourself in the pursuit of your goals, doing what makes you happy, and dealing with each given situation as best as you can, whether big (a 40 hour a week job) or small (no batting practice).
I’d like to tell you a story that relates to dealing with most of my summer being spent at work. It was my favorite moment of 2014, and it happened many miles away from a ballpark.
I was on the bus back home from my on-site internship training, sitting next to a fellow student who would be working in the same office as me. I remember thinking as we pulled away from the hotel that exactly seven days earlier, I was still in the waning hours of my ultimate month of living the dream. I was a little glum, to say the least. I was incredibly happy for the opportunity at PM, but I couldn’t help but think about how the job would change me and how I viewed my favorite ballpark activity. I worried that baseball, a large part of my personality, would vanish and leave a huge space that would need to be filled with something else. I didn’t want that to happen, but I may have been in a situation where I had no choice.
I expressed these concerns to my new friend, to a lesser degree. He was curious about how the simple task of catching a baseball could be so important to someone. I explained my rituals and achievements, and also what other joys that Ballhawking has brought me. Eventually, I pulled out a BaseBlog card from my backpack. I brought a fresh stack of them to training for the purpose of starting conversations with new friends and attracting readers; a rather shameful act that I’ll be brutally honest about. The response from him was not so typical, and caught me by surprise.
“That’s real cool. I can relate. I do drag racing at different tracks with my family in the summer”.
“You mean ‘zero to a hundred in two seconds’ drag racing, or…”
That’s exactly what he meant. We then switched roles as he showed me pictures of his car, talked about his type of races, and HIS greatest achievements. I was shocked and incredibly curious. This was one of the most random things I could think of. Why racing? How did you start? I wanted to hear more about every aspect.
I soon realized that I was reacting in the same way I want people to react to “I’ve caught over 100 baseballs at Major League parks”. It felt good to reciprocate an interest in the hobby of someone who I would get to know rather well in the coming months. I was also genuinely interested to hear how one goes about getting involved in that sort of thing. Other interns overheard us talking, and asked him similar questions about his races. During the course of the ride, I found out that everyone had a unique interest in one thing or another. One girl decorated cakes rather extravagantly. Another guy was training for his next triathlon. A handful of people had traveled around the world through study abroad programs for one reason or another, which were all a result of something they were passionate about. The first thing this showed me is that people are awesome, and everyone is passionate about something. No matter how much they deny it, everyone has something like this that makes them an individual. You can find out a lot about a person when discovering what they like to spend their limited free time doing. When I meet someone new in the future, I want to know what that is. This was the first of many lessons I would learn while being involved in this internship program.
The more important realization, and the one I was personally most concerned about when stepping onto the bus, is this: All of us had to make adjustments and push our passions off to the side this summer. Mine was rather unconventional, so I never had anything to compare it to. At the root of things, though, all hobbies are the same. They require time and commitment. The amount of people my age that train for marathons is much larger than those who Ballhawk, but everyone still manages to spend time doing what they care about most. Somehow, this let me know that everything was going to be okay. I wasn’t going to lose my passion just because I had less time to devote to it.
All of that being said, there are two main points. First, there’s an infinite amount of balls to chase, and an infinite amount of success and joy one can have by catching one. Secondly, I won’t let my passion disappear unless I want it to. My largest fear had been dissolved. I’m going (and will be able to) do this for a long time. That’s my largest takeaway from seeing the opposing worlds of plentiful/minimal baseball I saw this year.
I’m not exactly sure what I want to talk about for the rest of the entry, so I’m just going to let it flow for the most part. I have a “Season Goals” list that I put together in March, which I could easily recap and reflect on how I succeeded in meeting some and failing at others. Looking back, though, I feel like each one is pointless and irrelevant to how I feel now.
They were all centered around trying to force and create certain experiences that I’ve come to find aren’t all that great. They were meant to get me to talk to people, take “risks” (whatever that means), and not stress myself out. I know I just mentioned how creating goals to challenge myself is important in what I do, but I feel like I’ve changed my attitude so much that this specific list isn’t applicable to who I had become by the end of the season. I was trying too hard to force interactions that I thought would make me feel more like my role models and a ballpark regular. What I’ve learned, after spending so much time around these types of people at different ballparks, is that these things are impossible to create. I figured the only way to have the types of experiences that come from going to a lot of games was to actually go to a lot of games. I did that. I can even point out a few situations where I achieved the interactions I was really looking for. They weren’t all that thrilling, actually. It just seemed like normal problems, normal conversations, and normal life. That sounds like it turned out to be a let down, but being able to see that these situations aren’t “amazing” or “once in a lifetime” shows me they’ve become a part of my life, and the exact type of life I wanted to have at a ballpark.
I did a lot this year, there’s no doubt about that. The fact I didn’t try to play up these goals or make my situation sound better than it really was showed me something I can’t quite describe. The end result, however, is me being pretty sure I’ve become an experienced Ballhawk, something I had hoped would happen for the last four years. I’m not one of the new people who think there’s only one way to do things. I’m following the guidelines that I set for myself, regardless of what the other inhabitants of our little world recommend I do.
For now, that’s it. With it being so late in 2014, my mind has already switched to next season. These are my initial feelings that I thought about once the season was over, only now a little more refined since I’ve had some time to reflect. The next time you hear from me about actual baseball games will be my season preview entry that I’ll publish once I sort out all the ideas that are currently floating around in my head.
So, thank you to everyone. Everyone who reads my entries, goes to games with me, gives me support or ideas, and pass on actual Ballhawk advice. Everything, no matter how small, is appreciated. I hope it makes you a little happier knowing that you’re helping me do what I still think is one of the coolest things in the entire world.
Life had once again become cumbersome and suffocating. Between schoolwork, my job, having fun, and yes, even blogging (if you can believe that with this ridiculous delay I have), I was starting to get overwhelmed. I had been zooming all over the place and trying to keep up, but it was time to cut something out and devote more time to different things. My plan was to do Busch, Wrigley, and Miller on three consecutive weekends to finish out the year. Busch went okay, but the following week was rough. I didn’t necessarily want to put all my effort into going to more games, but I couldn’t end my season without knowing for sure when the last one would be. So I made the trek to home sweet home, knowing this would be my last baseball game in person for 2014.
You read right – Clayton Kershaw was on the mound for the Dodgers. That was what helped me make up my mind and convinced me to come all the way home. To be honest, I don’t pay attention to the game itself much anymore. Most of the time, it doesn’t make an ounce of difference who I see. This time, though, I felt that if I was lucky enough to get time this right, have the opportunity to take a day off, and see the best pitcher in the league, I should probably take advantage and keep an eye on him.
After four full years of being half way there while being down at school, I was finally able to take a weekend trip to St.Louis and see another game at Busch Stadium. I had been looking forward to this for a LONG time, and not just because I squeezed in one more game at any old park.