Ballparks, Bobbleheads, and Baseball Talk: One heck of a trip

To paraphrase Willie Nelson, “On the road again, can’t wait to get on the road again.” It’s that time of the summer to take one of those famous baseball roadtrips that I talk about of the time during some of the Rocky Mountain SABR luncheons.  In the week before the SABR 51 convention in downtown Chicago, I started my trek in my Subaru Outback to travel through the Midwest and check out some baseball games, no matter the size of the ballpark.  The trek included Major League, Minor League, Independent, and even checking out some Summer College Wood Bat action in Wisconsin and Iowa.

After taking my dad to the Los Angeles Dodgers at Colorado Rockies game at Coors Field on Tuesday, June 27th, the initial stop was checking up with the Northern Colorado Owlz and seeing how the new Future Legends Sports Complex is progressing.  While construction continues on the 118-acre sports complex in Windsor, the Owlz have had to play at three different home ballparks during the 2022 and 2023 seasons.

Photo of Wrigley Field manual scoreboard with Harry Caray in the Center Field entrance

After playing at the Jackson Sports Complex in Greeley and the Nelson Farm Park in Johnstown in 2022, the Owlz moved to their Future Legends Complex in 2023.  However, their permanent home stadium (TicketSmarter Stadium) is under construction in anticipation of the 2024 season.  In the adjacent multi-purpose Future Legends Field, the Owlz faced the Grand Junction Jackalopes in a smaller, 2,500-seat complex in a Pioneer League shootout on Wednesday, June 28th. The complex is completely a Field-Turf surface since the field is being shared with the Northern Colorado Hailstorm FC in the United Soccer League.  The field unfortunately had the baseball configuration lines and soccer configuration lines the same color, which could be confusing especially on the foul lines.  There were also no dirt sliding zones in the infield at any base, making base running an adventure sliding on the Field-Turf instead of dirt.  The only “brown” Field-Turf surface was the pitching mound, which appeared to be removable for converting over to soccer.  The Jackalopes rallied to beat the Owlz, 18-11 in a 3-hour, 39 minute game (with a pitch clock), and a 30-minute lightning delay.  Looking forward to the larger TicketSmarter Stadium next season.

The next stop on the road trip was at Haymarket Park in Lincoln, Nebraska, where my sister lives.  In the American Association Independent game between the Winnipeg Goldeyes and the Lincoln Saltdogs, the complex had recently been renovated with a new HD video board and a new grass playing surface, which is also home to the University of Nebraska’s baseball program, just across the interstate from Memorial Stadium, the Cornhuskers football stadium.  (This ballpark and Guarantee Rate Field in Chicago are the only two ballparks on this trip which was an encore visit.) The Saltdogs blew out the Goldeyes, 13-2, and afterwards, I caught up with a longtime friend, Doug Greenwald, who took over as the voice of the Goldeyes this season.

Doug Greenwald was the longtime voice of the Fresno Grizzlies from 2003-2022, calling over 2,500 games with the team in both Triple-A and in Single-A.  If the last name sounds familiar, Doug’s dad Hank broadcasted games with the San Francisco Giants (1979-1986 and 1989-1996), New York Yankees (1987-1988) and Oakland Athletics (2004-2005).

Bobbleheads galore at the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum in downtown Milwaukee.

One of the new summer baseball ventures that I wanted to check out this year was the Northwoods College Wood Bat League, a summer league where college baseball players begin the transition from aluminum bats in college to wood bats in the minors and majors.  This year, the Northwoods League was using exclusively maple bats for this season. The first game in this league that I checked out was the Waterloo Bucks as they faced travel team, the Minnesota Mud Puppies, at legendary Riverfront Stadium in Waterloo, Iowa.

One of the things I like in my travels is see some of the older neighborhood parks that have survived the test of time.  Riverfront Stadium, built in 1946 in Waterloo, fits that genre, older grandstands with 335’ down the lines, and 375’ in center field.  The park also served in the minors as the Waterloo Hawks in the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League from 1946-1956 and the Midwest League from 1958-1993.  While the stadium still has some of its old-style charm, modern amenities like a picnic seating area and a HD video board helps keep the old-style park going.  Minnesota raced out to a 5-1 lead after 1½ innings, before Waterloo came back with 12 runs in the bottom of the second inning as the Bucks rallied to beat the Mud Puppies, 16-11.

After Waterloo, I continued East on US-20 to Dyersville to check on the latest in the Field of Dreams complex and the corn surrounding the field.  I was surprised to see on the schedule one of the Ghost Player shows on the field during weekend baseball tournaments in the Dyersville area.  The legendary “Ghost Players” are a local group of players donning the historic baseball gear, and treat the families to an entertaining game on the field, where the house rules include no outs in the game.

Painter Andy Brown’s renderings during SABR 51, from Friday’s Cardinals at White Sox game, and Saturday’s Awards Banquet

I had planned to visit some family members in Wisconsin, but some of them were dealing with COVID-19, so plans were changed, resulting on two Sunday games on July 2nd.  The first game was checking out the Milwaukee Milkmen in the Milwaukee suburb of Franklin, against the Lake Country Dockhounds in the independent American Association.  While the Future Legends Complex in Windsor and the Field of Dreams Complex are two multi-sport complexes under construction, the Milkmen’s Franklin Field is part of the completed Ballpark Commons complex in Franklin, which included the Luxe Golf Bays, a three-story, 57-bay golf driving range located behind Franklin Field, a Baseballism store, and multiple baseball and softball fields.

No wonder the Milkmen moniker were reminiscent of the milk delivery men popular in the 1950’s with a black and white tone for the team colors, in a modern era ballpark with a wrap-around concourse, with “pastures” for the grass seating berms.  It was only fitting that the team had a cow mascot named “Bo Vine” with a uniform number of “2%”.  They even sold vanilla and chocolate milk in the concession stands. Lake Country edged out the 3-1 win over Milwaukee.

The evening contest down the road in Beloit featured one of the new minor league stadiums in affiliated minor league baseball, a change that was needed if Beloit was going to stay in the Midwest League.  The former Beloit Snappers played at Pohlman Field, a 3,500-seat symmetrical stadium built in 1981 that lacked the amenities that current ballparks have. With the newer ABC Supply Stadium four miles away near the town’s water tower, a new asymmetrical modern stadium, and seating around 3,850, the team also decided to go with a new team name, the Beloit Sky Carp.

For those who don’t know what a Sky Carp is, it a goose that doesn’t migrate south for the winter.  The Sky Carp, whose mascot is a goose named Poopsie, won the fireworks night, beat the South Bend Cubs, 8-5.

Dan Evans with filmmaker Matt Flesch, who created the documentary “Last Comiskey”, currently available on YouTube

I was initially planing to spend my birthday in Milwaukee catching an afternoon game between the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers.  But instead, I wanted to check out a new museum in the Downtown Milwaukee area, a new museum founded by Phil Sklar and Brad Novak in February 2019: The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum. Yes, Bobbleheads.

After seeing the center field bobblehead exhibit at LoanDepot Park in Miami last year, I remember hearing about a new exhibit of bobbleheads in Downtown Milwaukee.  The new museum has over 10,000 bobbleheads in their collection, but over 6,500 on display at their second floor location. The museum, which is a “no-touch” collection (except those sold in the store section), has a wide diverse mix of bobbleheads, from baseball mascots (including Toasty, the Rocky Mountain Vibes mascot) to Star Wars characters, from sports athletes to U.S. Presidents, from mobsters to sports announcers, and from Rosie the Riveter to Bob Ross.

After the bobbleheads, I drove south to Kenosha to check out another historic minor league ballpark, Historic Simmons Field, which dates back to 1920.  The current home of the Kenosha Kingfish in the Northwoods College Wood Bat League, also served as a minor league affiliate of the Minnesota Twins from 1984 to 1992, and also was home to the Kenosha Comets of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League from 1948 to 1951.

In recent renovations, some of the suites were made from the 1930 classic grandstand of the ballpark, and the addition of the Bambino, a 43-foot-long by 13-foot wide fishing boat part of the left field wall, which could be used for private parties, along with some recycled seats from Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards.  The game also proved to be nearly historic as well, as Kalamazoo Grizzlies pitcher Sam Carlisle had a no-hitter through eight innings, leading 5-0. The Kingfish had the first two batters reach in the ninth inning via errors, then a clean single by Isaac Williams broke up Carlisle’s no-hit bid. A sacrifice fly by Tucker Zdunich broke up the shut out, then Miguel Useche belted a three-homer off Carlisle to make it 5-4. Kalamazoo was able to get the last two outs to hold onto the 5-4 win.

Two more games on July 4th included two ballparks with the right field foul pole less than 300’ away.  Capital Credit Union Park in Green Bay, located about a mile away from Lambeau Field in the suburb of Ashwaubenon, has a quirky set-up designed more for soccer (for the Green Bay Voyageurs FC of USL League Two) than for baseball (338’ to left field, 415’ to left center, while only 282 feet down the right field line).  To compensate the short distance in right field, the team built a high wall in right field, by using shipping containers for the right field wall.  The Green Bay Rockers held onto beat the Lakeshore Chinooks, 7-6.  Lakeshore’s team included Brady Counsell, the son of Brewers manager Craig Counsell.

The evening game on the 4th was down in the Chicago area in Rosemont, at Impact Field, home of the Chicago Dogs in the independent American Association, against the Kane County Cougars.  The spacious ballpark, located near the flight path of O’Hare Airport, had a quirky field design as well (312’ to left field, 390’ in center field, and a 294’ short porch down the right field line, in homage to I-294 past the left field wall).  Kane County held on to beat the Chicago Dogs, 11-10 on the July 4th fireworks night.

Legendary organist Nancy Faust providing entertainment at SABR 51.

July 5th-9th were the dates for the wonderful SABR51 convention that took place at the legendary Palmer House Hilton in downtown Chicago.  Before heading downtown, the Landmarks Committee held their initial meeting over at Wrigley Field. During the visit, Pat Manaher, Senior Manager Team History and Brand Initiatives, and Ed Hartig, Cubs official Team Historian, talked about the process of renovating Wrigley Field, as well as reacquiring some of the team historical pieces, which were phased out during the previous ownership group with Tribune Broadcasting.  There also was a mini-tour of Wrigley Field, capturing a peek at the playing field, as well as the Cubs Hall of Fame under the bleachers, and Statue Row in front of the ballpark in Gallagher Square.  Manaher and Hartig noted that since Wrigley Field is in the National Registry of Historical Places, the iconic center field manual scoreboard will not be expanded to more than the current twelve games capable when MLB expands.

The legendary Palmer House Hilton in downtown Chicago was a trip back in time, founded by Potter Palmer in 1871. The hotel is one of only 26 grand palace hotels left in America today, and has the feel of the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs.  The Palmer House recently went through a $170 million renovation to keep some of the history and elegance in place.  The Palmer House brownie is a decadent treat to enjoy, with a layer of walnuts on top.

96-year-old AAGPBL star Maybelle Blair at SABR 51.

The featured speakers were top notch. Cubs Senior director for Strategy and Analytics Chase Carpenter started off the proceedings. One of the highlights was Maybelle Blair, a spitfire of a 96-year-old who played in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League. Former White Sox player and manager Ozzie Guillen was hilarious (and salty) as SABR had to make a last second change, moving his appearance up two hours after Wednesday night’s game at Guarantee Rate Field was rained out.  The Toronto Blue Jays and Chicago White Sox played a traditional doubleheader on Thursday.

Baseball owner Mike Veeck highlighted Friday’s speakers, recollecting on his disastrous “Disco Demolition Night” promotion in 1979, clearing admitting fault on the fiasco.  Veeck admitted the police prescience was for an anticipated crowd of 35,000, but didn’t anticipate the overflow crowd that jumped the fences, causing the White Sox to cancel several games in the home stand, due to all of the damage to the Comiskey Field surface.  Afterwards, I had the opportunity to talk with Mike, asking about his dad’s stunt with Eddie Gaedel in 1951. White Sox broadcaster Jason Benetti highlighted the awards luncheon on Saturday with his sharp wit, and how he started a “Just Say Hi” campaign with the Cerebral Palsy Foundation.

The research presentations are always a fun way to learn more about various projects that other SABR members have worked on.  Some of the projects that I enjoyed was Kat Williams’ project on Maybelle Blair, with the 96-year-old sitting in her presentation.  Other projects that I enjoyed including Daniel Levitt’s piece on the farm system and how teams manipulated player control rights, and Brian Powers’ presentation of bringing Comiskey Park back to life, creating 3D models from research data and “artifact tracing”.

Speaking of Comiskey Park, Dan Evans hosted a film screening of “Last Comiskey”, a condensed version of the three-hour version of the film from first time documentarian Matt Flesch. The film, which is available in three parts on YouTube, features interviews with players, coaches, and stadium personnel including organist Nancy Faust (who provided the music during Wednesday’s meet and greet event on the opening night). Dan also presented the Roland Hemond Award on Saturday to White Sox Special Assistant to the GM in International Operations Marco Paddy from the SABR Scouts Committee.

Dan was a great tour guide in Chicago, assisting me with the subway system there getting to the ballpark on Friday night for the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago White Sox, though I disputed that his high school Lane Tech looked more like a small college campus, rather than a high school campus.  My mic drop moment came on Saturday afternoon during the bus tour, visiting sites of previous Chicago ballparks from the 19th century, along with West Side Park, the Cubs home during their World Series titles in 1907 and 1908.  How often can you go on a bus tour, with Dan Evans sitting to my left, and sitting in front of me, none other than THE legendary baseball sabermatrician Bill James.

Legendary baseball owner Mike Veeck at SABR 51.

It was great to see the Rocky Mountain SABR organization be recognized during the Awards luncheon where we were among five chapters for their excellence.  Checking in with other committees during the convention is also a great meet-and-greet opportunity with many of the various committees which are available for SABR members, whether it is Minor Leagues, 19th Century, Asian Baseball, or another committee.  Two committees that I checked in was the Minor League Baseball and the Baseball Memories program.

The Minor League Baseball committee is beginning a major project, working on putting together a Minor League boxscores project and scoresheet database from every affiliated minor league between 1902 and 2004, before MLB took over control over the MILB boxscore database in 2005.  The project to help collect historical data from boxscores to compile statistics from over 3500 minor league seasons, many not in the Baseball Reference website database.  The Baseball Memories committee is a project helping those baseball fans in the early stages of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.  The Rocky Mountain Chapter is looking forward with joining other chapters in this project, and is looking for some of our members to join us with some of our board members currently involved.  If you’re interested in assisting us with this project, you can talk with either myself, Dan Evans, Greg Petty, or Dave Mundo on how to get involved.

Unfortunately, I had to end my baseball trip after the SABR 51 convention, to drive the 1,000+ mile trip from Chicago at Colorado Springs over a two day stretch due to commitments at work. This trip ended up just over 3,177 miles traveled on the odometer, seeing games in seven ballparks off my bucket list of ballparks to visit (Windsor, Waterloo, Franklin, Beloit, Kenosha, Green Bay and Rosemont). But I do have another trip planned in August back out east, including some museums and several new ballparks, which will likely double my mileage, and knock off more ballparks on my overall baseball bucket list.

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Kurt Wells
11 months ago

Nice recap Chris! Enjoyed reading of your journey!

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