Chia takes a back seat: Mounting losses overshadow promotions

I attended this game as a media member for Flyer News. The story published on FN, however, focused more on my experience in the press than the actual promotion and game. This version of the story focuses on what I came to report.

A sea of red-shirted fans protruded from the center field gates of Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. on August 5, 2015, an ordinary weeknight baseball game. Though, this was hardly an ordinary night. The Washington Nationals were giving away Chia Pets in the likeness of fan-favorite outfielder Jayson Werth to the first 20,000 fans in attendance. It was an unorthodox promotion to say the least.

I strolled towards the gates with Paul Fritschner, who was my source for the Werth garden gnome story I did in the spring. “It’s a big crowd, but not nearly as big as last year,” he told me.Press pass above Nats Park

The “last year” he was referring to was exactly 365 days prior when gnome-ageddon swept over Nationals Park. The garden gnomes drew a sellout crowd. That day, an unprecedented number of people lined up before the gates even opened to ensure they could get their hands on a gnome. In fact, some of those same fans turned around and listed their gnomes on Ebay—routinely drawing in more than $100 per.

I contacted the Nationals during the summer to see if they could credential me for the Chia Pet game, after all the Nationals do have Dayton alumnus Craig Stammen. They were gracious enough to give me access as a media member, so I took to the park in hopes of experiencing the vibe surrounding the unusual and popular giveaways.

“All I have to say is that the Nationals have the greatest marketing team in Major League Baseball,” Fritschner told me.

After Nationals Park opened in 2008, the team struggled to attract fans amidst 100-loss seasons and lackluster lineups. But as Washington’s young prospects came of age and the ownership splurged on veteran free agents, the baseball tides turned in the district and Nationals Park became a hopping destination and home to a winning club.

All the while, the marketing team pushed to make the stadium experience for fans as memorable as any in Major League Baseball. Following 2014’s gnome success, Washington decided to one-up themselves and create the Chia Werth.

A Chia Pet, by the way, is a ceramic bust that sprouts grass in place of head and facial hair.

This season, the tenth anniversary of the Nationals’ move to D.C., the Chia Pet is just one of the many unique trinkets being given out at Nationals Park. A slate of bobbleheads commemorate the greatest moments in Nationals history, and player nesting dolls are also featured on the promotional schedule.

The Chia, however, was far and away the most unique of givewawys.

Me on field at Nats ParkI entered the stadium and ascended to the press box, gazing towards at the outfield seats where the most eager of fans had congregated to watch batting practice after procuring their Chia Pets from the park’s entrances. It was just after 4:30 p.m. and the first pitch was not scheduled until 7.

I headed downstairs to the field, utilizing my media privileges, where I talked with a few fans and broadcasters about the promotion.

“I’m growing it as soon as I get to work tomorrow,” Billy Armstrong, and excited Nationals fan, told me. Armstrong said that he had owned Chia Pets growing up and was thrilled to see one given out at Nationals Park.

He did indeed, begin growing it immediately as he sent me pictures in the following days.Chia Werth in progressChia Werth in growth from Billy Armstrong

Dave Jageler, a radio broadcaster for the Nationals, also commented on the Chia.

“I think the demand for the Werth gnome was as large as for any promotion that I’ve ever seen,” he said, “I think just the whole look of the gnome was really cool, and I’m sure the Werth Chia has got to be a similar thing. It speaks to the strong fan base that they have a connection to the players and they have those special items as a collector’s item.”

Werth’s character and appearance provide great marketing material as he is a free-spirited, unshaven and popular individual. Several other Major League Baseball clubs attempted to capitalize on the Nationals’ trailblazing giveaway by creating their own player gnomes this year, but none reached the viral success that Werth’s did last August.

By the time first pitch rolled around, Nationals Park was buzzing to the tune of 37,000 fans. The park seats 41,000, so the Chia Pet fell slightly short of the gnome in terms of popularity.

Nevertheless, Washington fed off the energy in the bottom of the first inning with two quick runs to jump out to an early lead. As the game dragged on, however, the visiting Arizona Diamondbacks knocked out Gio Gonzalez and feasted on an underperforming bullpen.

By the end of the night, the crowd in Washington’s ballpark was merely a shell of its prior self. As the Nationals’ offense stumbled and the team fell behind by as many as nine runs. The fans exited and transformed a rocking red spectacle into a placid blue sea. And the Nationals themselves were back to where they started when the stadium opened in 2008. Garden gnomes and Chia Pets may get fans in seats. But it’s the wins in the scorebook that keep them there.Nats Park from the press box at night

August has been a downward spiral for the Nationals, who were deemed by experts the World Series favorites before the 2015 season began. After holding a lead in the National League East division for much of the season, they have fallen behind the New York Mets, and are now in danger of missing the playoffs altogether.

The Chia Pet, like the gnome last year, was supposed to be icing on the cake to a winning season. Rather, the silly promotions are dim thoughts at the back of disappointed fans’ minds, and can do nothing to remedy poor on-field performance.

It’s a real shame because if the Nationals had been atop the standings this year the way they were on August 5 of last year, I think the Chia would have garnered a lot more attention and the promotional craziness would be likely continued in 2016. Right now, though, the attention in Washington is drawn towards the poor performance of the team over the last month. I hope that, regardless of this season’s outcome, the marketing team will cast that aside in the off season and let their creative juices flow once more.

I destroyed the juju: Rockies at Nationals 8.7.15

Baseball players are very superstitious creatures. If you’ve ever been acquainted with a longtime baseball player, you Nats Park Friday nightknow what I mean. If not, just know that ball players will often forego washing their socks or shaving or changing spots on the dugout bench if their team is on a hot streak. This week at Nationals Park was all about the “juju” (pronounced “joo-joo” or “jew-jew”), which I can really only describe as baseball’s version of “the force.”

I am NOT superstitious (except for the black cat thing, I run away from cats all the time!). Paul is. Given that I have the luck of Charlie Brown and the suave of Jacques Clouseau, my habits tend to annoy the superstitious of the baseball world.

I stayed at Paul’s house this week, and it soon became apparent that I was on the dark side of his juju. His dog’s longtime windpipe problems began acting up as soon as I arrived and he ended up choke-coughing quite often when I was around. He fought back though as my allergies were aggravated. Soon we discovered a shorted circuit in Paul’s basement that caused spontaneous power outages.

It was even worse for the Washington Nationals. Monday I promised my friend Rachel that she’d see a win in her first ever Nats game. Doug Fister gave up a bunch of homers and the Nats, despite their best ninth inning efforts, could not overcome the jinx I obviously set. I kept my mouth shut on Tuesday and Washington won.

Wednesday, I had an interaction with Drew Storen (I didn’t put that story on this blog, but if you see me in person ask me about it and I’ll tell you), and he paid the price Friday.

Friday morning, a new stove arrived to be installed at Paul’s house. He and I were outside playing catch when the workmen came. The new stove ended up having previously-caused damage and could not be installed. The juju was bad. But we went to the game Friday night anyway.

Paul and I arrived at the park Friday at 4:30 and were soon at the Red Porch for batting practice. Most Nationals The Dan Uggla ballhomers reached the seats in straight away left instead of where we were in left-center. Dan Uggla hit in the last group of Nats and I told Paul that Uggla would hit me one. Sure enough, a few minutes later the former Marlin hit a low liner right towards me. It was falling short though, so I sprawled forward and made a lunging catch as my torso lay perpendicular to the seat backs. It was uncomfortable but very worth it!

I caught one more in BP off the bat of Colorado catcher Nick Hundley. That was also a sprawling catch as I had to reach over the glass wall separating the porch from the bullpen.

My biggest mission for this game, aside from seeing the Nats win, was catching a 10-year commemorative baseball. The Nats are using special balls during games this year to celebrate their ten years in Washington.

Bryce Harper helped the Nationals jump out to an early lead in the first inning with an RBI, and Washington eventually built their lead to 4-0 in the sixth.

When Dan Uggla came in to pinch hit in the bottom of the seventh inning, I thought my man would come through for me again and hit me a foul ball, but it just wouldn’t be. The Nats were up 4-1 at this point and things were looking good as the Storen-Paplebon combo for the eighth and ninth innings is exactly how management has drawn it up. I said “game over” when I saw Drew Storen run in from the bullpen. And the juju flew away.

Storen ran into some trouble in the eighth though after he walked a batter and allowed an infield single. The bases ended up loaded for Colorado slugger Carlos Gonzalez. A few pitches later, CarGo demolished a line drive into the back of Washington’s bullpen in right field to give the Rockies a 5-4 lead. It was absolutely deflating.

Our seats in section 131Gonzalez is the only Major League player I’ve ever seen hit a grand slam. More on that in a bit.

The Nationals offense did what they always do, and did not come up clutch. Despite Bryce Harper’s best efforts, he struck out in the ninth to end the game, giving the Nats yet another loss.

Storen had been lights out since the All-Star break, and in general this entire season, so it was particularly tough to see him give up the crushing blow and receive the loss.

During all this, the New York Mets had come back to win in Tampa Bay and build their NL East lead on Washington.

Back to Carlos Gonzalez, because this juju/coincidence is mind boggling. Gonzalez has three career grand slams, including last night’s. Gonzalez has played in 861 games over eight seasons in the Major Leagues. I have seen him play in exactly three of those games. The last time he had hit a grand slam was July 20, 2012 at PETCO Park. That was also the last time I had seen him-or the Rockies-play. And that was the first ever grand slam I had seen in person. I’ve attended many games since then and not seen another until Gonzalez blasted his shot last night.Freedom Fireworks

I looked at some splits on MLB.com, and Gonzalez is 15-for-57 with 44 RBI in his career batting with the bases loaded. At games I have attended, he is 2-for-2 with 2 HR and 8 RBI. Again, I have seen exactly three Rockies games.

So 67% of the time I see him play, Carlos Gonzalez hits a grand slam. In games I do not see him play, he hits a grand slam 0.12% of the time (as of August 8, 2015).

Following Friday’s game were Freedom Fireworks, a summer tradition at Nationals Park. It was a decent ending to an otherwise unfortunate night.

Final: Rockies 5, Nationals 4.

Pressed for a Chia Pet: Diamondbacks at Nationals 8.5.15

In the spring, I did a story for Flyer News on the Jayson Werth garden gnome, and Paul Fritschner’s experience arriving to the park hours early to be first in line for it. Exactly one year after the gnome-ageddon, the Nationals are giving out 20,000 Jayson Werth Chia Pets. I am credentialed media for the event and and blogging live from the press box at Nationals Park.

This was the scene on half street as we approached:

Half street as we approached

Paul said that it was not nearly as crowded at 4:30 as it was last year for the gnome. Nats Park gates open at 4:30 for 7 pm games. Last year, Paul arrived at approximately 2 pm.

The press box at Nats Park is high above even the 300 level:Media pass in press box

I was on the field for BP early on:
Nats BP from behind home plateI tried talking with some fans as well as broadcasters to see if they could give me some extra insight on the Chia Pet, especially after the gnome last season. I talked with FP Santangelo of MASN and Dave Jageler, the radio broadcaster who I met last year with Paul. I’ll be using their quotes for the Flyer News article hopefully.

If any of you are wondering why Werth was made into a Chia Pet, behold:

Jayson Werth with fans

Dan Uggla was friendly, of course, to fans:
Dan Uggla at Nats ParkPaul Goldschmidt also signed for the fans on the field:

Paul Goldschmidt signs autographs

Here’s me and Paul (not Goldschmidt) during batting practice:

Me and Paul at Nats Park BP

Paul acquired two batting practice balls. One was an Ian Desmond homer he caught on the fly. Here he is with it:Paul with his Desmond HR ball

The Jayson Werth Chia pet:

The Werth Chia

There was a shattered window in the press box. Apparently it occurred when the panes were being slid open or closed. Details unknown.

Shattered window in the Nats Park press box

The Game

Gio Gonzalez pitched a scoreless first for the Nats. Yunel Escobar, who led off last night with a home run, doubled to deep center field in his lead off at bat today.

It’s hard, I can’t clap in the press box because it’s supposed to be neutral territory. I let a single clap slip on the Escobar double. Whoops.

1st inning: The Nats loaded the bases with nobody out in the first. Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth each hit sacrifice flies to right field to make it 2-0 Nats.

3rd inning: The Nationals failed to get a crucial double play, and Arizona took advantage on a sacrifice fly later on to make it 2-1 Washington.

4th inning: The Presidents Race in the middle of the fourth was easily the most entertaining I’ve seen here. Teddy came out dressed as a magician with a magic hat. He stopped four other presidents, put a Chia Pet into the hat, did a wand twirl, and pointed to the bullpen. Abe ran out of the bullpen with a green Chia beard and sprinted to win the race.

7th inning: The Diamondbacks broke out for four runs in the sixth inning to gain a 5-2 advantage. The Nationals had it coming to them however, as they have been out-hit all night. The hit tally currently stands at 12-3 in favor of Arizona (top seventh inning).

8th inning: A side story to each Nationals game from here on out will be scoreboard watching. The Mets are currently leading the NL East after overtaking Washington last weekend. New York squared off against Miami this week, and let’s just say it was not pretty for my Fish. However, the Marlins almost mounted a comeback tonight against New York. They were down 8-0 going into the bottom of the ninth and rallied for six runs. They even got the winning run to the plate with two outs, but could not cap off the comeback. A “Let’s go Marlins” chant broke out in the 300-level as Miami’s score closed in on New York’s in the ninth, but soon deflated. If the Nats lose tonight, they will be two games behind New York in the divison.

Wellington Castillo hit a long home run into the Red Porch in the 8th for Arizona. They now lead 8-2.

9th inning: Arizona has gone up 9-2 after Nats pitcher Felipe Rivero balked with a runner on third. Most fans have left the stadium and it feels like it did back in 2008-09 when Washington struggled to win at all. It would be a good night to be a fan in the seats. Lots of foul balls, not many fans to get them.

An infield single has plated another run for Arizona. It’s 11-2. Diamondbacks have 17 hits. One out in the top of the ninth. Tyler Moore is into pitch!

Moore’s first batter was Paul Goldschmidt. The remaining fans lept into a loud “Let’s Go Tyler!” chant–a little too loud for the number of fans in attendance. Moore induced Goldschmidt into a 5-4 fielder’s choice for the second out of the inning.

Moore then drilled Wellington Castillo, who homered in the eighth (intentional?), then got a line out to secondbaseman Anthony Rendon to end the inning.

Michael A Taylor drilled a two-run homer into the Red Porch with one on and one out in the bottom of the ninth. Jose Lobaton singled before Taylor’s bomb, which landed right at the back of the red seats and in the center of the section. It was very close to the spot that Wellington Castillo hit his.

11-4 Diamondbacks. Final.

View of Nats Park from the press box

Chia Werth in progress

Buffalo, Bombshell, Baseballs, Bros: Diamondbacks at Nationals 8.4.15

For the second time in as many nights, Paul and I ventured to Nationals Park. Tuesday we were accompanied by Jack and Ben, both of whom went to our high school. We were looking to snag during batting practice and change the Nationals’ fortune as they had lost the previous four games.Ben, Jack, me and Paul at the Red Porch

My main mission for this season at Nationals Park is to attain one of the 10-year commemorative baseballs the team is using. The Nats first moved to Washington in 2005, and this whole season has been a celebration of their tenth anniversary in the nation’s capital. As such, they are using a special baseball during all home games.

The pre-game baseballs

On this hot August afternoon, we arrived off the green line metro around 4:25 and proceeded to the center field gates, which were slightly more crowded than I had anticipated for such a midweek contest. Shortly after 4:30, we walked into the stadium and down the steps of the Red Porch.

To me, the Red Porch is the best BP location at Nats Park because of the fair amount of home runs that land in the section, and the fact that it only has one entrance–discreetly located next to the Red Porch restaurant. Because of this, it tends to be less crowded as most fans bypass the entrance and populate the traditional left field seats for BP.Ben and Jack enter the Red Porch

The Nationals’ pitchers were hitting when we first got in, so it took a while before anything reached the seats. When a home run was eventually hit to the porch, it was deep on the center field end. I raced back and a across a row just in time to get my hand on it as it spun beneath a seat. Another fan grabbed it simultaneously, but I had the better positioning. Note: I don’t like wresting people for baseballs because it’s juvenile and I’m really only in it to catch homers on the fly. But I had to make sure I did not pass up a chance for a 10-year commemorative baseball, so I snatched it for myself, turned it over a few times, and after determining it was not such a ball I handed it over to a kid who was a row below me.

shadunker at Nats ParkYunel Escobar was in the next group of hitters, and he came through as well as anyone. He hit a line drive homer into the first few rows of the porch that I got into position for. It ticked off the glove of a fan in the first row and lucky did not change direction too much as it stuck in my glove a few rows behind the deflection.

I brought my shadunker (a.k.a. the glove trick) to this game for any balls that may fall behind the wall and below the seats. Lo and behold, kids dropped baseballs that were thrown to them down behind the wall. That always happens.

So I brought Ben down with me to the front and told him to photograph my retrieval of the ball. I dropped my glove Ben holding the home run I caughtdown quickly as to not arouse suspicion setting it up, but the sharpie pen fell out of the device because of the force. I reeled it back up and propped it with a thin, ballpoint pen, which I had never attempted to use with the shadunker before. Luckily, I was able to secure the ball on the second try, and the little kid next to me assured me that the ball was intended for him originally. I searched it for the 10-year logo, and then handed it off to him.

A short time later, a Nationals righty launched a deep home run into the Red Porch. And I mean deep. It hit about halfway up the restaurant and took a high bounce back towards the field. I had ascended up towards the restaurant in anticipation of a shorter bounce, but was now completely out of position. Paul, though, was in one of the first rows of the seats, and lunged to make a sprawling grab on the ball that likely would have ended up back on the field.

The entire Diamondbacks team hit all of one ball to the porch during their batting session, so the four balls were all we could muster before the game.

This whole time, Jack and Ben were largely unenthused, and Ben at one point said, “Are you sure we didn’t miss the 7 a.m. lawn mowing practice, Steve?”Ben, not too amused with the Diamondbacks hat

After BP ended, we were all hungry so we meandered the stadium for a bit in search of the best eats. I need to update my Nationals Park seating chart post because in it I recommend food that no longer exists in the stadium. They do, however, have two new stands behind section 113. They’re Maryland and Virginia themed and showcase local cuisine from each. I ended up getting a chicken biscuit from the Virginia stand at one point, which was fantastic.

Ben and Jack inquired about the restaurant at the Red Porch, so I explained what I remembered from my trip with Paul last year, and they were quite interested. More on that in a bit.

Our seats were in section 108, which is the left field corner. The section ended up being a lot more crowded than I had anticipated, so earlier on I eyed the third base line for possible upgrade spots.

The actual game

Let it be known that Paul was not happy with the Nationals’ performance at the games he attended up until this point in 2015. So unhappy was he, that when he asked Siri who was pitching for Arizona on Tuesay, and she responded with “Patrick Corbin”–Arizona’s equivalent of an ace–Paul tore off his shirt in disgust, threw it on the ground, and pouted about the Nats being unable to score runs.

View from section 108Well, Max Scherzer took the hill for Washington, so it had the potential to be a quick, low-scoring game. That was not the case.

Scherzer sent down the D’backs quickly in the first, and the Nats picked up right where they left off offensively Monday night. Yunel Escobar homered to start the game, the first of Washington’s four consecutive hits out of the gate. Although they left the bases loaded, the Nats satisfied their fans with a trio of first inning runs to take a 3-0 lead.

Scherzer ran into some trouble in the fourth inning when he surrendered three runs to Arizona on forty pitches. One run was even knocked in by Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the former Marlins catcher who has the best last name in baseball.

The score was deadlocked at three for the middle innings.

The bombshell

Ben stole a menu from the Red Porch to peruse back at our seats before he and Jack decided to jaunt up there again to attain the unlimited beverages I had informed him of. Here is Ben’s personal account of the excursion:

Ben Lawler here with a special report about the Red Porch restaurant at Nationals Park. It was Tuesday August 4th 2015, a hot humid day. As the sun set, it became perfect for baseball. Paul, Steve, Jack and I were walking around the park, trying to find some sustenance without spending a small fortune. During our search we walked past the famed Red Porch, where Steve was talking and informed us that the drinks have unlimited refills. This immediately piqued my interest and I began to listen to Steve more intently.

Okay, hold on, Ben! Notice he says “I began to listen to Steve more intently.” That’s substantial evidence that Ben does not actually value my intellect enough to listen to me all the time. Carry on.

He said the food was not much more expensive than the rest of the park and the drinks were only $4.50 or so. I immediately recruited Jack and in the bottom on the second inning we meandered over to this fabled fountain of drinks. After a brief wait, we were seated at an outdoor table overlooking the field. Unfortunately we were told that we only could stay at our tables for an hour, which meant we would have to speed up our soft drink consumption. Our server, Brian (probably Bryan) was happy to get us our drinks (and honestly anything else, he was extremely laid back) to start and we settled in to look at the menu. We were also happily surprised by an assistant waiter who brought us ice cold water, which was free.

Our plan was not to buy anything too expensive and split whatever we got so has to cut the price of the experience even more. I asked Bryan about a side of fries(they didn’t appear on the menu) and without hesitating he said “I got you,” with the tone of a 20-year old surfer reclining on a beach chair, and disappeared. He returned after probably picking, slicing and frying the potatoes himself. Now for the record, I had not asked to order a side of fries, I only inquired about them, nevertheless they were hot and salty and contrasted the third cup of soda nicely.

After the fries, Jack and I decided the main course would be a blonde brownie with ice cream staked at 10 The blonde bombshellbucks. Termed the “blonde bombshell,” we hoped it would be large enough so as not to have to divide it with a microscope. It did not disappoint and was  consumed along with our 5th drink. We were at this point satisfied with our experiment. Bryan brought us the check and told us that the fries were seven dollars and not to worry about paying for the drinks (while very nice, what I took out of it was that we had not drank enough for them to charge anything–well next time we shall). We found Steve and Paul had upgraded our view of the field and settled in for a Nats pull-ahead and win.

Thank you, Ben, for spoiling the ending to the game. As he alluded to, Paul and I had already upgraded our seating experience when he and Jack set off for the restaurant. We settled into section 112 and then began moving down the rows.

We ended up down in row N, alphabetically 14 rows up. And finished the game around the same spot in section 113.

Now, the term “blonde bombshell” ignited a story of its own, which I shall save for a later date as to prevent this post from dragging on longer than a confirmation Mass in the Diocese of Arlington.

The Buffalo

Tied 3-3 still, Dan Uggla came in to pinch hit in the bottom of the sixth, as Scherzer had already thrown 114 pitches. Uggla lined a deep fly ball to left that unfortunately found the glove of David Peralta on the warning track. Off the bat, I thought it had a chance to leave the park, but it just wouldn’t be.Ben and Jack in our final seats 113

In the bottom of the eighth after Ryan Zimmerman walked and Jayson Werth doubled, Wilson Ramos, “The Buffalo,” sliced a short liner down the right field line that landed in for a perfectly-placed hit. Both Zimmerman and Werth scored to give the Nats a 2-run advantage.

Bring on Jonathan Paplebon, add in a little drama produced by a Yunel Escobar error, cap it off with a save and a free Chick-fil-A sandwich, and you have a 5-4 win for the Nationals! It snapped their losing streak and put Paul in a better mood, at least until chia pet day.

Today, the 5th, is Jayson Werth Chia Pet Day! I’ll be in the press box, and I’m planning to live blog the experience. So check back here this afternoon for all the coverage you could possibly imagine.

Natitude late, comeback halted: Diamondbacks at Nationals 8.3.15

Panorama of Nats Park

Monday night was the first of my four games this week at Nationals Park, and I was joined by Paul and two other friends–Rachel and Sarah. Paul and I went to high school with Rachel, and Sarah goes to Xavier–some college in Cincinnati that Paul unfortunately chose to attend as well. Whatever.

Paul at the Newseum exhibitRachel took the panorama above. Don’t mind the folks in the aisle who were discombobulated by the picture.

We met up at the Newseum (the museum of news, go figure) where there is a brand new exhibit commemorating the 10 years of Nationals baseball in Washington, D.C. The exhibit was small, but well put together. There’s memorabilia from Opening Day 2005, Ryan Zimmerman’s walk off to christen Nationals Park, and even Max Scherzer’s no hitter from earlier this season. Paul had a good time, and was that guy who read everything.

That’s Sarah with me on the right, we’re on the top of the Newseum, which is actually a phenomenal picture spot when the Capital is not under construction.

A quick metro jaunt got us to Nats Park around 5:40, just as the Diamonbacks were finishing up batting practice. Soon after we settled in at the Red Porch, an Arizona rightly launched a high fly ball towards us, that I ranged to my right just enough to make a catch. It was actually the first BP homer I’ve caught this year because I haven’t attended much batting practice. A short time later, another batter hit a shot towards the center field end of the red seats that landed untouched in the back row. After scurrying over, I was the closest to the ball. There was a small kid sitting in the restaurant table right above the seat where it landed, so I handed the ball to him after I picked it up. Nothing else really came our way during BP, so that was that.

Paul, Sarah, Rachel, me at Nats ParkDoug Fister took the mound for the Nationals, squaring off against rookie Zack Godley. The first three innings quickly vanished, and then the Diamondbacks erupted. They shot three home runs off Fister, who lasted six innings and gave up five earned runs.

Washington simply could not get their bats going, and suffered at the hands of Godley, who is now 3-0 on the season with a 1.50 ERA. Jonathan Paplebon came into the game to pitch the top of the ninth for the Nats, who were down 5-0. He promptly gave up Arizona’s fourth dinger of the night–a solo shot into the left field seats.

Fans were already in the midst of an exodus when the final dagger was blasted, and the stadium ended up only a third as full as it was earlier in the evening.Panorama from the mezzanine

I was really feeling a seven run comeback as the Nats took to the dish in the bottom of the ninth. Ryan Zimmerman showed a flash of his former self as he blasted a long, one-out solo home run deep into the left field seats, but there was still a ways to go. After singles by Clint Robinson and Ian Desmond, Wilson Ramos hit an RBI single to center field, cutting the deficit to four. Michael A Taylor followed up with a two-run double down the left field line to make it a 6-4 game.

Paul and me at Nats Park section 136Jayson Werth came in to pinch hit, but couldn’t achieve heroism and grounded out. Next, Yunel Escobar flew out to end the game.

Meanwhile, the Marlins were hosting the Mets in Miami. New York swept Washington over the weekend, and the two clubs entered Monday in a virtual tie for first place in the NL East. With the Nats’ loss and the Mets’ win in a slaughter of the Fish, the Mets now have a one game lead in the division.

That’s about all I’ve got. It’s Beanstalks Baseball tomorrow night. There will be much more BP snagging, hopefully, and I also hope to see a better score at the end of the night.

Improving 2015 with Chia Pets and Playoff Pushes

2015 has been such a stereotypically Marlins season that I could have pulled up posts from 2012 and 2013, switched out a few names and republished them, and you wouldn’t have noticed the difference. So instead of talking about a fired manager or ripping ownership for again making the wrong offseason moves and unloading their haul before the trade deadline, I’m bringing you the bright spots in baseball. Here’s what I will be looking forward to in the coming weeks and months.

Former Marlins making strides

Good baseball players have a tendency to perform well in their post-Marlin days, and I hope for Steve Cishek pitching 5.28.14Cishek’s sake that the trend will continue. The fan-favorite sidewinder was traded last week to the St. Louis Cardinals–MLB’s best team. St. Louis has had postseason success over the past decade paralleled only by the San Francisco Giants.

Cishek struggled earlier this season for Miami as the closer. He’s a great guy and an exciting player, who I will be rooting for in the postseason. Although I root for underdogs–and St. Louis is hardly that in October–I have too much respect for the Cardinals and their fan base to hold their success against them.

Michael Morse and Mat Latos are headed to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and will contend for an NL West title against the defending World Series Champions San Francisco Giants. Morse and Latos were two of the four big names Miami signed in the offseason and both were less than stellar over their half season with the Fish. Morse was with the Giants last season for their championship run, and is lucky to be on yet another postseason-contending team.

Omar Infante is another former-Fish who we will see in October. Kansas City’s second baseman won an AL Championship with the team last year, and the Royals are primed for another postseason run. They illustrate a rejuvenation in baseball’s “small-market” franchises along with…

The Houston Astros.

Minute Maid ParkWhere do I start with these guys? Not a year ago they were still the joke of baseball, but have quickly turned the AL West on its head, storming to a division lead in the first half of the season. Veterans Evan Gattis and Jose Altuve lead the young squad that has seen monstrous production from the likes of shortstop Carlos Correa and outfielder George Springer, who seemingly turned from prospects to stars overnight.

Speaking of former Marlins, Jake Marisnick has made a home for himself as Houston’s center fielder. Marisnick has made unbelievable plays this season in Minute Maid Park’s vast outfield, and has become one of the most exciting players on a playoff-contending team. In fact, the Astros are such legitimate contenders this season, that they had to

Kick Taylor Swift out of Minute Maid Park.

Taylor Swift’s 1989 World Tour is scheduled to infest ballparks all across the country, but it will not come to Houston during the playoffs. Originally scheduled for mid-October, the Astros pushed up the concert date to a September road trip as to ensure she didn’t interfere with any Astros playoff game.

When the concert was originally announced last year, Houston publicized the date was subject to change due to potential Astros playoff games. The jokes rained on Twitter and then…the Astros jolted to first place. Who’s laughing now?

I do have to thank Taylor Swift, though, for coming to Nationals Park because it gave me the inspiration to write one of my favorite posts of all time, sarcastically explaining the nuances of an American baseball stadium to the uneducated reader. I still haven’t returned to Nats Park this season, but that will end next week with

The third installment of the somewhat-annual Beanstalks Baseball!Group photo!

Paul is going to rejoin me, along with Ben and Jack at Nationals Park for another hopefully exciting night of baseball. September 2013 was our first trip when we saw the Marlins get pummeled by Jordan Zimmermann. We had a lot of fun during batting practice that day, and snagged about as much in our second trip in April of 2014. Paul missed out that day, but the rest of the crew was there when we saw the Nats get beat by the San Diego Padres, who will be hosting

The 2016 All Star Game

PETCO Park has been my favorite baseball venue since I visited in 2012, and I’m eagerly awaiting the 2016 game in San Diego. I have no clue if I’ll be able to attend, but you better believe I’ll try my PETCO Park all star ballbest. The Padres recently unveiled the logo for the game, and even tweeted out a picture of the ball that will be used. And boy, is that ball nice-looking!

Pleasing aesthetics dramatically improve the baseball viewing experience, and I look forward to watching Giancarlo Stanton smack baseballs all over PETCO during the Home Run Derby. Hear that, Big G? Stanton missed the All Star festivities in 2015 due to his hand injury.

San Diego is a spectacular city and was a fantastic summer destination. I’ve only visited 10 current Major League parks, but I’m certain PETCO will remain my favorite at least until I visit

PNC Park

Pittsburgh’s jewel is the stadium I’d most like to visit next. I was originally planning a trip up there this year, but things didn’t quite pan out. It’s certainly on my list for 2016.

The Nationals just finished up a road trip in Pittsburgh, where Ian Desmond finally broke out of his slump and clobbered several homers over the weekend. Washington will be much better off if Desi stays hot at the plate. Though, all the Nationals hitters were stifled this week by

Jose Fernandez

Jose FernandezMiami’s ace is officially back from his Tommy John recovery and he has hit the ground running. Fernandez is 15-0 in his career at Marlins Park, and is 4-0 in his four starts this season. Along with Stanton, Fernandez is a cornerstone of this team, and will hopefully head a budding rotation for seasons to come. Henderson Alvarez, although sidelined for 2015, will look to rebound next year as the number two starter.

I promise, the young talent in this organization is impressive, similar to the 2006 Marlins that nearly returned the team to the playoffs over their 4-5 seasons in Miami. Instead, that talent was slowly and painfully dissolved, and October continues to elude the Fish.

Finally, and I don’t have a good segway, I’m looking forward to

The Jayson Werth Chia Pet

There’s honestly nothing else that really needs to be said as long as you know who Jayson Werth is and what a Chia Pet is. August 5th, the same day as last year’s gnome-ageddon, will be Chia Pet day. I’m wondering if August 5th will become the annual weird promotion day at Nats Park.

There you have it. Those are the upcoming baseball highlights in my life. Let me know in the comments if you have anything to add.

One more thing though, here are my playoff predictions:

In the National League, the Dodgers will heat up down the stretch and take the division from the Giants, who will not make the playoffs because it’s an odd-numbered year. The Cardinals and Nationals, of course, take their divisions. And the New York Mets, after fumbling at the trade deadline, fail to make the playoffs.

The Cubs and Pirates get the two Wild Card spots, and Jon Lester will defeat Pittsburgh to both continue the Pirates’ October woes and get every Chicago baseball fan on his or her feet, skyrocketing hopes that will soon be demolished when St. Louis pummels Chicago in the NLDS. The Nationals will finally make it out of the Division Series by defeating the Dodgers, but will then be handled by St. Louis in the NLCS.

On the American League side, Kansas City will walk away with the AL Central, and Los Angeles will barely edge Houston for the West. As much as I’d like to see Toronto win the East, the Yankees will unfortunately take the crown. Houston and Toronto will be the two Wild Cards, and the Astros will defeat the Blue Jays to storm into the Division Series.

Kansas City will edge Houston in the ALDS (although with the Astros’ momentum I wouldn’t be shocked if Houston wins). And the Yankees will be swept by the Angels in the other DS. Kansas City will, for the second consecutive season, defeat Los Angeles and advance to the the World Series, which will be held entirely in the state of Missouri.

St. Louis will edge Kansas City in seven because they have Cardinal magic, and will continue winning the National League in odd-numbered years (2011, 2013, 2015) as the Giants do in the evens (2010, 2012, 2104).

The Curly ‘W’ Confusion: Answering questions about Nationals Park for Taylor Swift fans

Congratulations, concert goers, on your exquisite opportunity to witness one of the world’s most Nationals Parkrenowned pop stars in the beautiful capital of our great nation. Now, I understand that this may be the first time some of you will enter this venue known as “Nationals Park,” so I thought I’d lend myself to anyone who may have concerns about the stadium. Here are a few questions I’ve overheard recently:

Nationals Park? Isn’t that like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon?

Firstly, Nationals Park is surprisingly not part of the National Parks system. Yes, one displaced ‘s’ can make all the difference. Rather than a vast outdoor wonderland, Nationals Park is an American sports stadium.

The shape of this place doesn’t seem very good for concerts.

Nationals Park is in use for at least 81 days each year as a baseball stadium. Baseball, an American sport adapted in the mid-19th century, is played on a diamond-shaped, asymmetrical field. This is why the seats are arranged the way they are. Believe it or not, Nats Park was built specifically for the purpose of housing a baseball team. Atrocious, isn’t it?Jordan Zimmermann at Nationals Park

Why don’t they get rid of that big pile of dirt there?

That pile of dirt, ladies (and maybe a few scarce, reluctant, gentlemen), is called a “mound,” and it’s where every play in the game of baseball begins. The “pitcher” stands atop it and throws the ball, a “pitch,” to the “batter,” who stands about 60 feet away from him.

And what about those big yellow things in the corners? They’re some weird-looking goal posts.

 Close, close. Similar to goal posts in football, the ball’s relation to the “foul poles” in baseball determines whether or not the hit is “fair” or “foul.” If a batter hits the ball, and it leaves the field of play in any area between the yellow foul poles, it is called a “home run” and results in a scoring play for the batter’s team.

Moon rises over Nationals Park

How about those platforms on the sides? That must be where the backup singers will stand.

Close, again, kind of. Those platforms are actually roofs of small gathering spaces called “dugouts.” They’re called dugouts because they are dug out of the ground. The baseball players and coaches occupy the dugouts when they are not playing in the field.

Nationals Park scoreboard

That’s a big TV up there. Is that for the people that get bored watching the baseball?

You’re right, that is a screen for videos. Although, it is most commonly called a “jumbotron” or “scoreboard.” During baseball games, it not only displays the score but also shows replays of the action on the field. It also lists the players’ names and some of their season statistics. If you’re lucky, they’ll use the screen to show your beloved Taylor Swift while she’s singing.

 

I like how they have that net back there. I assume it’s to block the crazy fans from rushing the stage, right?

Okay, the net is there to block something. The net blocks the balls the batter hits from striking (at fast velocities) the fans sitting behind there. If it weren’t for the net, fan injuries would be very common.

Hold on, I thought you said the batter hits the ball towards the poles. Why would he hit it back to the net?

Ah, I see the confusion. The batter does attempt to hit the ball out to the field, where the poles are. But the pitcher throws the ball at such high speeds that it’s common that the batter miss the ball by a few centimeters, causing a redirection of the pitch or a “foul tip,” and the ball will travel back towards the net at a result.

Red PorchOkay, this is starting to make a little bit of sense. But I still don’t see why so many people would come to watch this baseball stuff. Back to the concert: is that slanted grassy area out there in the middle like lawn seating?

No, sorry, you’re not allowed to sit out there. That grassy area is called the “batter’s eye,” and—

What? But you said the batter stands all the way over by the net!

Just let me get there. As the batter stands over by the net, he faces out towards the field. While he is watching the ball come in from the pitcher, his line of sight goes directly towards that grassy area out there. If there are fans sitting out there wearing different colors and moving around, it can distract the batter as he concentrates on the pitch. So most baseball parks put a dark colored wall or patch of grass out there so the batter has a steady background that won’t mess with his vision.

Fair enough. Now, you said baseball “park” and this is called Nationals Park. What does The Curly 'W'“Nationals” mean?

The “Nationals” are the baseball team that plays at this park. They are named the “Nationals” because Washington, D.C. is the capital of our nation.

And “Capitals” was already taken…

Yeah, whatever…

Great! Thanks for your help. But one last thing. Is this whole deal sponsored by Walgreens or something?

That’s your best question yet!

Ben on the lookoutFor all the people needing disclaimers, this article was complete satire and the questions listed here were not actually asked by any concert-goer–as far as I know. I am not intending to insult the intelligence of anyone who may be attending the Taylor Swift concert and/or not be familiar with the sport of baseball. Many thanks to my partner-in-crime Ben Lawler, who also contributed to this article.

For a real review of Nationals Park, make sure to check out the Capital Conjecture, breaking down the complete seating situation–in 100 percent seriousness.

Stanton, Gordon primed to start All-Star Game

In a heated All-Star Game vote that has been headlined by the overwhelmingly disproportionate support for Kansas City Royals, the Marlins are in line to do something never before done in franchise history.Dee Gordon leads off game

Both outfielder Giancarlo Stanton and second baseman Dee Gordon currently hold starting spots in the MLB.com fan vote. The Marlins have never had two players start in the All-Star Game. The last Marlin to earn a starting spot was Hanley Ramirez, who manned shortstop each year from 2008-2010.

Both Stanton and Gordon are certainly worthy of spots. Despite his mediocre average of .260, Stanton leads the league in home runs (25) and runs batted in (64) as of today. He plays above average defense in right field, but of course is known for his tape-measure home runs. Undoubtedly, Stanton will compete in the Home Run Derby, which takes place the night prior to the All-Star Game.

Stanton is second among all outfielders in votes received, behind Washington’s Bryce Harper, who has garnered a record number of fan votes this breakout season of his. Harper is currently hitting .345 with 24 home runs. The top three vote-getting outfielders receive starting positions.

Gordon, who maintained an batting average north of .400 for about two months at the beginning of this season, leads the league in hits (104). With double play parter Adeiny Hechavarria, Gordon’s defense is slick and showcases his incredible speed both at the plate and in the field.

Both Stanton and Gordon still need help from fans, though, as they could easily be overrun in the final weeks by the determined St. Louis fanbase. Gordon leads the Cardinals’ Kolten Wong by a little over a million votes at second base, but Stanton is ahead of St. Louis’ Matt Holliday by just over 100,000.

The Major League Baseball All-Star Game will be played at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati on July 14.View of Great American Park from section 303

The Top Step with broadcaster Dave Sims

Safeco Field long image of left field

Dave Sims is the current play-by-play broadcaster for the Seattle Mariners on Root Sports Northwest, and has called Mariners games since 2007. Throughout his career, he has also covered many college basketball games including George Mason University’s upset of the University of Connecticut in the 2006 Elite Eight. Sims has the distinction of being the only Major League broadcaster to call two perfect games in the same season, a feat he achieved in 2012.

He was generous enough to talk with me recently for the blog, and provided a lot of interesting insight. I compiled it all with Paul Fritschner, and it became our debut episode of “The Top Step” for 2015.

If you are new to the program, “The Top Step” is our podcast-style talk show about all things baseball, including anything and everything that may be discussed on the top step of the dugout.

Special thanks to Dave for joining us for this episode, and we’ll be posting many more throughout the summer.

Seattle navigates to victory in Baltimore: Mariners at Orioles 5.20.15

The last time I was at Camden Yards, it was August of 2007 and Johan Santana pitched for the Minnesota Twins as the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner. After that season, my dad switched his baseball allegiance to Washington when Nationals Park opened. And before I knew it, I had gone eight seasons without attending a game in Baltimore.

Warehouse at Oriole Park

Seattle was in town for a mid-week, three-game series, so my brother Charlie and I trekked up to Oriole Park for Wednesday night’s game. I schlepped in at 5 p.m. when the gates opened, and hung out in left field for Orioles BP.

Just a few minutes later, a bald, white Orioles right hander, who I presume was Steve Pearce, hit a deepOrioles BP at Camden Yards fly ball to my right. I knew I could catch it, so I jogged across my empty row and realized that an usher and two women were standing on the stair case right in my path. It was too late to hop over the row of seats as the ball hit the railing on the stair case and bounced up towards the concourse. Both the usher and the women were startled by the ball and the usher jokingly pretended to be perturbed. But he, of all people, should know not to stand around during BP without an eye on the field. C’mon son!

That, unfortunately, was my closest chance of the day. The Orioles really didn’t hit that many homers, and when I finally headed over to right field when the Mariners were hitting, nothing came my way.

Once the Mariners finished hitting, I headed over to the third base side where Charlie was sitting behind Me and Charlie at Oriole Parkthe Mariners’ dugout. Oriole Park has a good reputation for being a relaxing atmosphere to watch baseball, and at no point did an usher ask to see my ticket so I can affirm that reputation.

As the players milled out of the dugout in the minutes leading up to first pitch, I moved down along the left field line, just behind third base, to see if I could snag a ball and get some better pictures. There was a family down there with a sign for Nelson Cruz, who played for the Orioles in 2014 and is still a fan favorite in Baltimore. In addition, there were a few people who were looking for an autograph from Robinson Cano. Wouldn’t ya know it, but both of those players actually acknowledged their respective fans and came over to sign some autographs.

Ruggiano and Taylor throwing before the gamePoor positioning and an overall lack of effort prevented me from getting down to the front row. However, I did benefit. As everyone else was concerned about getting up to Cano, I realized shortstop Chris Taylor (pictured left, facing towards the camera) was finished with his pregame throwing and had a ball in his hand. We made eye contact and I raised my hand (I didn’t have my glove on). Without any verbal prompt, he tossed the ball my way and I caught it uncontested. The same thing happened last year at Safeco Field with Brad Miller. Right place, right time sort of deal.

Taylor, by the way, was just called up last week and is taking over for Miller at shortstop. Miller is moving into a utility/designated hitter/outfielder sort of role. Since Baltimore’s starting pitcher Wednesday was left handed, the same side Miller bats, Brad unfortunately did not get to start the game. Taylor’s promotion is in no way related to underperformance from Miller, who actually won the AL Player of the Week honors last week with four home runs on the Mariners’ homestand.

Taylor warming up at shortWhen the game began, I remained in my too-good-to-be-true spot in the third row behind third base. I’m not joking, no usher ever confronted me. After several innings, I ended up moving back behind the dugout where Charlie was–an almost empty row.

In the second inning, I had my first of two foul ball chances on the day. Chris Davis, Baltimore’s left-handed clean-up batter, skied a high pop up my way. I was sitting on the end of a row, and got up to maneuver down the steps to the front rail. At first, the ball appeared to be right on its way towards me, but then descended short. Kyle Seager, Seattle’s third baseman, made the catch about 15 feet down the line from me, right next to the rail. Had the ball carried further, he would have been right next to me for the catch.

The picture right is of the exact swing that produced the foul ball. After I took the picture and saw the Chris Davis fouls a ball offball’s flight, I put the camera in my right hand and held onto it as I ran down, glove on my left hand.

As for the game, Mariner catcher Mike Zunino hit an RBI double in the second inning to put Seattle on top by one. Two innings later, outfielder and former Marlin Justin Ruggiano crushed a two-run homer into the seats in left-center.

Roenis Elias pitched a gem for Seattle, going 7 2/3 innings, allowing one earned run on six hits and recording four strikeouts in the process. Taylor hit his first career triple in the seventh inning to tack on a the fourth run. And I did get to see Brad Miller play when he recorded a pinch-hit single in the top of the ninth (pictured below).Brad Miller singles in the ninth inning

My second foul ball chance of the day also came off the bat of Chris Davis. In the bottom of the ninth, representing the tying run, he hit a high foul ball well over our heads towards the upper deck. It hit off the facade and bounced back our way. In fact, almost exactly our way. It was headed towards the home plate end of our row, and we were on the third base end. I scooted across the mostly empty row, but had to pull up because there were two people sitting down, who had previously not been there. The ball bounced on the steps (I think) and was bobbled by a bunch of fans sitting in front of us.

Back to the game. Mariners’ closer Fernando Rodney had an eventful ninth inning. Starting with a 4-1 Fernando Rodney lets the arrow flylead, he allowed consecutive singles to bring the tying run to the plate. Davis, whose at bat included the above-described foul ball, struck out looking. Steve Pearce stepped up and was set down likewise. J.J. Hardy then singled to draw the Orioles within two, but Rodney induced a groundout on the next batter to finish the save.

I got a pretty neat picture of Rodney (right) with his signature arrow celebration. He mimes shooting an arrow, then Logan Morrison, first baseman, puts his arm around him and the two gaze at the mock arrow’s landing spot. In the picture, you can also see the first base umpire hold the ultimate “out” call, with Travis Snyder, the retired batter, pulling up in dismay.

Justin Ruggiano interviews postgameThe Mariners won by the final score of 4-2. It was Elias’s first win of the year. Ruggiano had a double in addition to the home run, and was interviewed after the game by Root Sports, the Mariners’ television network.

As this was the first game at Oriole Park in some time, as well as the first time I attended batting practice in Baltimore, I think I should re-rank it on my stadium list. Oriole Park, after all, was the trailblazer of the so-called “ballpark revolution.” Many new stadiums were modeled after it and have mimicked its charm.

My previous top three were, in order: PETCO Park, Great American Ball Park, and Safeco Field.

I have to take into account the surrounding city, so it therefore cannot best PETCO Park in San Diego. Oriole Park, since it’s right next to M&T Bank Stadium (home of the Baltimore Ravens) is in a similar position to Safeco Field, where the surrounding neighborhood is a sports district. Great American is also in that spot near Cincinnati’s football stadium. In that sense, Camden Yards has a better district than both Safeco and Great American. It’s cleaner, easier to navigate, and just feels ballpark-ish.

Further, Oriole Park is better for batting practice than both PETCO and Safeco. There’s more left field seating as well as the flag court in right field that provides an open space for batting practice maneuvering. It’s also a bit easier to navigate than PETCO. The warehouse decorating right field is a unique feature and defining characteristic. Finally, the fans and ushers are both of utmost friendliness. All things considered, Oriole Park at Camden Yards now ranks #2, behind PETCO and in front of Great American and Safeco. The #5-11 parks are, in order: Fenway, Minute Maid, Marlins, Nationals, Dodger Stadium, Turner Field, and RFK Stadium.

Nelson Cruzes into second baseRob Manfred signature

Finally, the ball Taylor threw me was the first I’ve acquired this season. Therefore, it was my first with Rob Manfred’s, the new commissioner’s, signature.

Every Major League Baseball I had acquired up to yesterday bore the signature of Allen “Bud” Selig, the previous commissioner who retired in January.

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