Sunday, June 29, 2014

Pawtucket Red Sox

Today was supposed to be my off day. But upon further review of the atlas I found that I could make the last few innings of the Pawtucket Red Sox game. I really only need a few innings with dog in hand to get a review done. Nine innings is better but I am restricted by the confines of time, space and dimension as well as the highway patrol. Plus, I had a special reason for wanting to visit McCoy Stadium. Not only is it one of those old gems of a ballpark, but it was the site of the longest professional baseball game in history. The 33 inning game spanned over two days as the Red Sox finally won. Cal Ripken Jr and Wade Boggs both played in that game on April 18, 1981.

I finally arrived as the 7th inning was starting. I didn’t expect to the club to let me in for free, it is a business after all but I had to ask. After being told I still needed a ticket I was asking the fellow at the ticket window if they had any military discounts. That is when the couple at the next window who were buying tix to a future game (and leaving the one in progress, the Red Sox had a 7 run lead) offered me an unused ticket they had for the game today. I was in the process of taking it out of their hand when the agent said we could not exchange tickets. Say what? They owned the ticket and wanted me to have it. Sort of like you buying a sandwich at a deli and then giving it to a homeless man on the street (I am, after all, semi-homeless). But the agent was adamant. No can do. I guess the Red Sox have never heard of free trade. But I have come across similar restrictions on the transfer of privately owned goods among people before….in Eastern Europe. Before they joined the EU and were still haunted by the spectre of communism and its similar silly rules. Lenin would be proud Pawtucket.

Anyway, despite that blast from the Cold War past, I was pleased with the ballpark. It has a really old feel to it. The main grandstand has a wooden overhanging roof like one used at so many parks of yesterday. I should know, I spent that morning looking at photos of them at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. McCoy Stadium was built in the 1940s and still has that flair despite several renovations.

The dog however…..

Bun-fresh. I like fresh.
Taste-the Kayem frank was kind of pale. It tasted decent, but it was no Hebrew National (figured out my favorite brand yet?).
Price-$3.50 is a good price at a AAA park.
Toppings-this is the second AAA stadium in a row that all they had was mustard and relish. Bad trend.
Portability-the foil sleeve is good, but it is like building a fence around the house to keep the dog in...when you don’t have a dog. The skimpy toppings don’t really need help staying on the hot dog.
It Factor-there is the regular dog and the monster dog. Yawn. I saw the monster dog. I wasn’t scared.

Location-not really downtown but in a neighborhood, which is actually better.
Access-walking is easy if you live near. Other than that it is mainly a drive-to.
GA Ticket Price-$8 for a seat was not bad.
Cleanliness-not bad but not spic and span either.
Fans-great crowd on this Sunday afternoon. Really into the game as well.
Ambiance-McCoy should bottle their ambiance and sell it to other ballparks.

DogBallparkTotal Dog/Game
Portability5GA Ticket Price5
It Factor2.5Fans5

Despite the dog’s shortcomings it still tasted ok. But I did leave with a bad taste in my mouth thanks to my comrades at the ticket window. I am sure he was just following doctrine. But so were the folks that invaded Czechoslovakia. My final word on a game at McCoy Stadium is this: definitely see a game there, but eat before you come. And bring a pillow….you never know when the next 30-something inning game will be.

Syracuse Chiefs

I finally get to see the Buffalo Bisons….in Syracuse. I was supposed to see them on Thursday, in Buffalo. I ended up changing my itinerary slightly and by my calculations would have arrived about 30 minutes before game time. I never like cutting it that close because, you know, things happen… accidents on the freeway. So, I was about an hour away when….an accident happened on the freeway. Traffic was STOPPED for 2 hours, then made to get off the freeway and reroute. Not a whole lot of routes in upstate New York. I only really needed to catch about 3 innings to get my data for my dog blog. Nothing doing. By the time I fought my way there the game was long over. I took the Greyhound bus to Toronto the next day and Coca Cola Field, a really nice ballpark from the looks of it, was right next to the bus station, taunting me.

I did make it to a Syracuse Chiefs game. A great way to spend a Saturday night. The Chiefs play in NBT Bank Stadium which is a nice semi-circular park with a red brick turret at the main entrance. It is flanked by two smaller red brick towers and has an old-style double decker grandstand that is partially roofed. It is located in what is sort of a shopping center area in a large adjacent field next to a railroad track. The park itself is a real beauty...but the dog? I was really hankering for a Hebrew National dog after experiencing so many others in the past week. That frank really sets the standard. Here is what I got instead.

Bun-it has the Fenway style bun that looks like the frank is wrapped in a slice of bread.
Taste-the pale Hoffman’s frank was a bit tasteless and what taste I did get was not that spectacular.
Toppings-well, there was mustard. I had to ask for relish and they gave me packets of relish. You know how I love packet condiments.
Price-$3.50 for a dog is nothing to complain about.
Portability-a cardboard boat. It can actually suffice because there really aren’t any toppings to fall off.
It Factor-regular dog, big dog. That’s it.

Location-not by any means downtown and sort of tucked away near some freeways in commercial area.
Access-mostly a drive-to park but there was some sort of train platform nearby.
GA Ticket Price-this is where Syracuse excels. $5 for a great for a Triple A GA seat. And military get in free ALL the time. Thanks you Chiefs.
Cleanliness-A good, clean ballpark.
Fans-it was me and 10 other people. Actually it was about 15% full….on a Saturday night.
Ambiance-despite the other detractors the ballpark has what it takes for top score. It looks and feels like a ballpark and offers a good baseball experience.

DogBallparkTotal Dog/Game
Portability3GA Ticket Price5
It Factor2.5Fans2.5

Given the choice I would have rather seen a game in Buffalo. That ballpark is downtown and looks fabulous...from the outside. I wouldn’t discount a Chiefs game if I were in Syracuse for other reasons, but I would not make a special trip just to see a game there. And as far as eating at the park, that about what you would say to your pooch after it bit the mailman….bad dog! bad dog!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Toronto Blue Jays

The hot dog quest goes international! Toronto to be exact. Canada is another country you know. I know because every time I cross the border I feel like I am being interrogated by the KGB and accused of being some sort of double agent. I guess they didn’t recognize my celebrity as being the Prince of Processed Meat. They did forego the cavity search though, so I was somewhat relieved. After having invaded Ontario I headed for the Rogers Centre (yeah, they use the Queen’s english), or better known to us baseball purist as its original name The Skydome.

The stadium was a wonder when it opened in 1989 (yep, been that long). It was the first MLB venue to have a retractable roof. Personally, I used to hate indoor baseball. It was meant to be played outside, in the sun preferably. Then I learned about melanoma and warmed to nighttime baseball, but inside? Then, one summer day in Houston where I lived at the time, I decided to walk from my apartment to the Astros game. It was 3 miles or so and it was 105F outside. The Astros close the roof once the ambient air temperature hits 85F. After I stumbled in and nearly collapsed from my hike through the valley of hell I soaked up the “cool’ 80F or so air. I swore I would never bitch about domes or roofs on ballparks again. Plus think about it, with a retractable roof there is never a rainout. Which has been my curse when visiting Atlanta. The idea has caught on. Arizona, Seattle, Milwaukee, Miami all have retractable roofs. Oh, and I took the Greyhound Bus from Buffalo. Greyhound has come a long way, not a bad trip.

All of the other convertible ballparks had Toronto’s template to learn from. Unfortunately for all of them there really is no way to put a retractable roof on a stadium without making it somewhat rectangular. What is a weather avoiding plus detracts from the ballpark ambiance. There is simply no getting around it. All of them have a bit of a warehouse look/feel to them. And since Toronto was the first, this factor hits the Blue Jays the hardest.

Carmen Day and Some Handsome Dude
They try hard to make up for the long in tooth venue by providing a very personalized customer experience. Carmen Day, the Director of Guest Experience, has over 30 ambassadors working at the park to ensure each fan has a memorable time. If you catch a home run ball, for example, her crew will get the ball autographed by the slugger who belted it. The Jays are also hosting “Cottage in the City” weekend at the park. A cottage is what the knucks call a lake house, or cabin or dacha, or some other colloquial term for small out of the city getaways digs. A plaza is blocked off and there is electronic fishing, faux kayaking, bands, beer and everything else one needs to get their cottage on before catching a game. It is very unique and Canadian.

Bun-a unique and soft italian style bun with brush on cornmeal. Quite tasty.
Taste-the Schneider’s frank is plump and not too fatty (a good thing if you eat as many as I do).
Toppings-so far the best selection in baseball. Buy a dog and you can pile enough stuff on top to make it a meal. If I awarded extra points Toronto would get them for this category.
Price-$5.50 (thereabout, I had to do the currency conversion in my head. I went to school in WV so cut me some slack on this). I would say too pricey, but considering the size of the frank and the fact that you can pretty much build a salad on top of your dog with the toppings, it isn’t a bad deal.
Portability-another first with a half-sleeve/half wrapper that I can’t really explain. It does a decent job though.
It Factor-Toronto would have scored lower since they only offer a footlong version of the regular dog. But the Jays fans are so ga ga goo goo over this dog is earns a good score.

Location-in a nice section of downtown Toronto.
Access-all modes. I walked from the Greyhound bus station in about 30 minutes.
GA Ticket Price-Again, the conversion is about $15. Kinda pricey but hey, it’s an international venue.
Cleanliness-the crew does a splendid job of keeping the old Skydome in shape.
Fans-small crowd for a Friday. They warmed up to the game after it got exciting (there were 5 homers). Many seemed to be socializing rather than watching the game though.
Ambiance-tough for any retractable roof ballpark. The warehouse look is never appealing and the one in Toronto is mostly concrete. Inside it is better but while it is a wonder, the aesthetics drag the score down a bit.

DogBallparkTotal Dog/Game
Portability4GA Ticket Price3.5
It Factor4.5Fans3.5

Cottage Days Electronic Fishing
Carmen was nice enough to show me all of the eats available at the Rogers Centre. The selection is vast and actually very affordable. What is significantly more expensive north of the border is beer. Taxes turn their ugly head and the suds suffer. By comparison, the Blue Jays would pay about 4 times the price of a keg of beer than say the Pirates. Things like high taxes on booze are the stuff revolutions are made of you know.
OK, So I Got a Thing for Mascots

One other interesting gastronomical tidbit Carmen shared with me: pizza. While the hot dog is still king at the Jays game, Canadians eat far more pizza than fans at any ballpark in the United States. Can’t say I blame them. After hot dogs, pizza is the next big thing.

If you are baseball road tripping, Toronto is really out of the way. The border crossing is a nightmare and a real hindrance to the lure of heading north. It is still quite the experience if you can brace the border though. Seeing a game in the park that started the retractable roof option is not to be missed. And come hungry. Have a dog AND a slice of pizza.

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Thursday, June 26, 2014

New York Mets

The Windy City. Known for its high wind and inclement weather. The only problem is I wasn’t in Chicago, but New York doing its best Chi-town impersonation. But neither snow, sleet nor rain can keep the intrepid hot dog explorer from his quest for the perfect dog. And on Wednesday it landed me in Citi Field, home of the New York Mets.

This was my second trip to Citi Field. The first time it was the third game ever played there when it was brand spanking new. It was early April of course and it is the only time ever that I have bought a beer at a baseball game and it actually got colder as the game went on. I lasted 5 innings. This night I only had the pelting drizzle to deal with, and the blasting wind. That’s what I like about open concourses, you can seek shelter and still watch the game as well as eat. And the concourse at the Met’s abode is a nice one. It is situated inside the mainly red brick stadium that greets you as soon as you descend the stairs from the number 7 line. The triple arch lights are a nice touch but the double scoreboards are slightly confusing. The big apple that rises like the great pumpkin when the Mets hit a homer is still there, a holdover for the Shea days. The outfield overall is sort of busy, like a stadium with ADD. Besides that it is a really nice park and I prefer it over Yankee simply for aesthetics, although Yankee is easier to get to.

Bun-soft and fresh.
Taste-the same Nathan’s famous served at Yankee Stadium, and just as yummy.
Toppings-a really, really good selection of toppings.
Price-$6.50 is the second priciest dog I have had on my trip.
Portability-same cardboard coffin, and it does a superior job.
It Factory-over the top, including the heart stopping “Pastrami Dog.”

Location-built where Shea Stadium was. On top of the same old landfill and sort of isolated.
Access-despite its location, the number 7 line keeps Citi Field within reach of all.
GA Ticket Price-$17 is a little expensive….well, a lot expensive.
Cleanliness-super clean.
Fans-smallish crowd, and I think the weather dampened their spirits. Not to mention Oakland’s bats.
Ambiance-Citi Field comes really close but loses a bit with the busy outfield and the slight corporate HQ look at the front of their stadium.

DogBallparkTotal Dog/Game
Portability5GA Ticket Price3.5
It Factor5Fans4

Perhaps during the All-Star break I will do a blog on Yankee Stadium vs Citi Field. Each has its pluses and minuses. If the Mets are the only choice while you are in the Big Apple then you can’t go wrong catching a game. But if you decide on one for the dogs, head to Citi Field. Once again I was impressed by the hospitality of the New Yorkers I met, giving me directions and their opinions on dogs. They really do get a bad rap. The Mets? They deserve their bad rap….they got spanked by the A’s. And you can see the standings for yourself. I know, I’s early.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Baltimore Orioles

We all owe the Baltimore Orioles our gratitude. While many teams were content on playing in the multi-purpose concrete monstrosities known as “cookie cutter” ballparks, Baltimore decided to raze old Memorial Stadium and build a baseball-only ballpark. They did it in a retro-style that paid tribute to the ballparks of yore but with modern amenities. They incorporated local warehouses into the architecture and gave their new Camden Yards digs a very local flavor. Fans from all teams raved about the design and it was wildly successful. It was so popular that others followed suit and soon teams were blowing up their cookie cutters and building new retro-looking parks. Baltimore started the baseball-only park craze that gives us a great variety of hardball venues we have today. We owe Baltimore.

Orioles park was built in 1992. Hard to believe it is fast approaching its silver anniversary. The team has done a marvelous job of keeping it in tip-top shape and it should have no problem making it to its golden celebration. It is mainly red brick held together by green steel lattice and supports. The checkered outfield grass meets an angled outfield wall that has the Baltimore skyline looming over it. What is notably absent is the circus feel. No over the top kids zone, huge caricature structures or other distractions…..just baseball related necessities. That is what makes Orioles Park so great, it is as much about what it isn’t as about what it is. You can actually go there to just watch a game. There is a row of shops in the warehouse that is technically part of the ballpark, but it not attached to the ball playing structure. There is a reason this ballpark has been so widely copied.

Chef Josh Distenfield
Then there is the dog. The organization was nice enough to let me interview Executive Chef Josh Distenfield. He is responsible for creating some of the great dogs available and for keeping the quality of the regular dog high. Even more impressive, especially to me as an environmentalist, is that Josh has won a recent award for sustainability. He keeps all of his suppliers local and operations green. That in itself is something the Delaware North Company (which runs concessions in the park) should be really proud of. A dog goes down easier when you know it is a sustainable treat. If you know Maryland, you know it is famous for its crab. That is why, among other speciality dogs, the Orioles offer a crab mac and cheese dog. It’s a top seller and I was fortunate enough to try it in addition to the regular dog (which is the one I graded). I know...two dogs at one game. Relax… was seafood. And seafood is good for you.

Bun-Baltimore rivals Pittsburgh for the softest, freshest bun so far.
I Tackle the Crab Mac and Cheese Monster
Taste-the Esskay frank I had in Bowie only rated a 4.5, but the one in Baltimore was tastier. Josh explained it is likely the taste and texture from being prepared on a flat-iron grill versus a roller. Whatever it was it worked and earned the Esskay wiener top score.
Toppings-TWO, count ‘em, TWO types of mustard available. along with the rest. They had me at two types of mustard.
Price-for the size of the dog and toppings available $4.50 is a reasonable price.
Portability-Baltimore uses both a cardboard boat AND a cardboard tray. The duo works well together to keep any stray toppings within easy reach of the fork.
It Factor-there is an early bird dog that is basically a breakfast hot dog, a few others and of course the crab mac and cheese. A great selection of over the top dogs earns top score.

Location-it don’t get no more downtown than this.
Access-walk, drive, bike, train and light rail. Light rail has it own stop next to the stadium.
GA Ticket Price-my reviews are a snapshot in time. While my ticket would have normally been around $15, this Tuesday they were $9 bumping a 4 up to a 5. Timing is everything.
Cleanliness-as clean as the day it was built..
Fans-just enough fans to earn top score. I would have given them a 4 but they were really enthusiastic (this does not include the drunken, selfie-snapping crowd of 20 somethings sitting in front of me).
Ambiance-Half the teams in MLB have copied something from this you really need to ask if it gets top score?

Me and Boog
Also, two strange but pleasant things happened in Baltimore. Just outside of the ballpark the bar “Pickles” sells an “Oriole Dog.” It has a Nathan’s Famous frank and…..peanut butter, jelly and cream cheese. I thought about it but didn’t have the courage. If you want to eat it….I’ll buy it. And then, I got to meet Boog Powell. The Orioles slugger from the 60s and 70s. He was a premiere player in his day and could pound the ball. And he is a great guy as well.

DogBallparkTotal Dog/Game
Portability5GA Ticket Price5
It Factor5Fans5

This also means there is a new leader in the standings. With a combination of great dog and ballpark (and a little luck and timing with fans and ticket prices) Orioles Park gets the first perfect score of 60. That means if you are planning a baseball road trip, Baltimore should be on your list no matter what. I still have 7 parks to check out, but this is going to be a tough park to beat. Great job Baltimore.