Pawtucket Red Sox vs. Durham Bulls, June 12

I should be more diligent with posting here. It’s not for a lack of interest; there’s certainly plenty of baseball topics on which I’d love to pontificate, and many of them have nothing to do with my disdain for Barry Bonds or the Yankees.

I wanted to dissect the Mets’ draft, how they took something like six pitchers among their first 10 picks, with four of them being college pitchers. Other thoughts included logging my game experiences. On Tuesday I went to my fifth Mets game this year — at least one per homestand, so far, save the short four-game set against the Marlins at the beginning of the month while I was away. I’m now 5-for-5 in Mets games and Steve Trachsel starts, amazingly, and the team is 4-1 when I’m in attendance. I’ve also got a decent 3-2 upper deck-to-field level ratio as far as seat location goes. The July 3 Mets-Yankees game won’t be too bad, either: mezzanine box. And, if the rotation holds, Trachsel will pitch the Friday night game on July 2.

There’s so much more I planned to do with this site, but unfortunately I started it at a time when my responsibilities at work changed — for the better — and have led to much more work and much less free time in the office. I therefore have less free time to type away freely at work, and when I get home my time spent on the computer is often related to my renewed interest in The Sims. Otherwise, I’m playing some Xbox — MVP Baseball 2004, naturally — or watching baseball on the Extra Innings package. There are also shows like Reno 911 or Celebrity Poker Showdown that draw my attention as well.

But last Saturday, I got in the car and shot up I-95 to Providence, where I caught up with Neil Solondz, the first-year broadcaster for the Durham Bulls whom I got to know when he was doing the same job for the Lakewood BlueClaws their first three seasons. We met for lunch and talked baseball, along with his fiancee, at an Italian place up on Federal Hill, a short walk from their downtown Providence hotel. After lunch, Sari took Neil to the ballpark and I walked past the Dunkin’ Donuts Center and the Westin Hotel to the Providence Place Mall, a giant three-level, carpeted feat of consumerism that was a pleasant and relaxing respite from the hot summer day, not to mention a good way to kill two hours before I could head to the ballpark.

Around 4, I traveled four exits on I-95 up to Pawtucket and arrived at McCoy Stadium, my first Triple-A ballpark. I’ve seen minor league games at Trenton’s Double-A park and the Class A facilities in Lakewood, Kannapolis, Greensboro, South Bend, Augusta (New Jersey) and Staten Island. There have also been independent games in Newark, Bridgewater, Montclair and Atlantic City — all in the Garden State. But our closest Triple-A club is the Phillies’ affiliate in Scranton, Penn. Pawtucket is next, then Richmond, I think.

McCoy is a 62-year-old facility that seats just over 10,000, rather small for a AAA ballpark. They could sell more tickets if they had more room, this being the heart of Red Sox country. With the move two years ago of their AA affiliate from Trenton to Portland, Me., Boston now has three of its five top farm clubs within New England — Pawtucket (AAA), Portland (AA) and Lowell (short-season A). Only Augusta, Ga. (low-Class A) and Sarasota (high-A) require a flight by the minor-league instructors who bounce from team to team.

McCoy has that 1940s minor-league charm in the 30 or so rows of seats that begin down at the field and climb up to the top of the grandstand, many beneath the roof supported by posts that obstruct views of a select few seats throughout the stadium. But the outfield is all 21st Century baseball innovation. The scoreboard features a video screen that, on June 12, showed the afternoon Fox broadcast of the Red Sox-Dodgers game, Joe Buck’s play-by-play echoing throughout McCoy Stadium as the Durham Bulls took batting practice. Down the left-field line, a platform dotted with picnic tables and umbrellas provided a general-admission eating area and a concrete concourse ringed the outfield. Beyond the left-field fence is a grass seating area; center field features a concession stand available for pre-game group outings; and right field has bleacher seating, which, along with the concession stand, is opened to the general fans just before gametime.

During BP, I wandered out to left field, where families lounged on the grass as kids in Johnny Damon and Curt Schilling t-shirts scrambled for home run balls that made their way up to the berm. When they did, a scrum bolted en masse to the area, and the kids fell and climbed over one another until one jumped up with the souvenir. If a father caught it, he handed it to his son — or to one of his son’s friends, if it was his second or third catch of the afternoon. When a fatherless adult snagged the ball on the fly with a SMACK! in his mitt, the pre-pubescent boys flocked and cried like gulls — “HERE! HERE! HERE!” They swarmed at the fence with the same high-pitched calls if an outfielder on the grass below retreated toward the warning track to track down a fly ball or pick up a screamer off the wall. Most of those, however, were returned to the bucket behind second base. Maybe one in five was tossed onto the berm, which sent the kids scrambling into a scrum again.

An hour before the game, I retreated to the will call window to get the ticket Neil had left for me. Earlier in the week, I purchased a general-admission ticket to ensure entrance; at lunch Neil told me he could leave one for me. I took him up on the request, simply for the better seat it was likely to provide. After finding my seat in row FF — six rows up from the walkway, which was about five or six rows up from the field — I descended to the area above the Red Sox’ third-base dugout to snap some pictures and explore the grandstand.

McCoy Stadium is like Yankee Stadium in one way — feel. It feels old, pre-Korean War, in some ways, but the renovated aspects stand out. The concourses — the layers upon layers of paint on the tunnel walls, the tight spaces and fan logjams — feel old, relics from the time before handicapped accessibility laws and families of four whose members have never met a McDonald’s value meal they didn’t devour. But the bright outfield walls, the newer seats, the electronic scoreboards scream post-60s renovation. Down the left-field line at McCoy, a tower containing staircases and an elevator stand out; later in the evening in the setting sun, the tower will cast a pointed shadow over third base and then the pitcher’s mound. But the dugouts are built directly under the stands. Not in the way, at most ballparks, where people in the front row can rest their drinks or feet on the dugout roofs. Instead, those in the front row have a railing in front of them, then a 10-foot drop to the field. If they stamp their feet, the players beneath them hear it.

As a result, autograph hunters have to get innovative. Sure, they can yell to the players as they emerge suddenly from the dugout, then toss down a ball, a hat, a pen. But the regulars have a system. They create vessels to transport their programs and cards, attach them with string and lower them into the dugout. A two-liter soda bottle is a popular choice; others used shoe boxes with the string extending from four sides, meeting above the center, and extending back up. Some players simply pull the items out, sign them, then put them back, all without leaving the shade of the dugout. It’s a grab bag for the fans who send their items down, then pull them up 20 minutes later to see which players took the bait.

My seat was in a good position to get some decent shots of the batter’s box; if I pulled back into a wider view, I got the pitcher as well. For most of the two hours I was at the game, I took pictures and took in the atmosphere. I wondered what I’d want to eat, then a little after 7 (the game started at 6:05), I went down to the concourse and bought a cheeseburger from a small grill stand selling only burgers, dogs and bottled soda. Wanting more carbination for my buck, I chose not to pay $2.50 for 20 oz. and went to one of the main concession stands. One of two, I gathered. For 15 minutes I stood there in a line that did not seem to move. I finished my cheeseburger. I then decided, as I neared 20 minutes in line with at least four more people to go before I reached the counter, that I was wasting my time beneath the stands and returned to my seat.

With a three-hour drive back home ahead of me, my plan was to leave at 8 p.m. I saw six innings, with Durham taking a 9-1 lead. Matt Beech, whom the Red Sox signed earlier in the week, was the one the Bulls roughed up. Left fielder Johnny Gomes homered, as did Jared Sandberg, who’s been up and down with the Devil Rays. Jorge Cantu went deep too, and superprospect B.J. Upton was 1-for-5 in the game, with his hit coming in his second at bat. Pawtucket had Trot Nixon leading off on a rehab assignment, going 1-for-4 … with an error on a dropped fly ball in the setting sun. Another way to tell that this stadium was built some time ago: the sun sets over third base, which must make it rather difficult for the first baseman to see those throws from the shortstop when he ranges to his right to go deep into the hole. Pawtucket also had Brian Daubach batting third (he doubled) and former Trenton players Andy Dominique, Kelly Shoppach and Justin Sherrod — pinch-running for Nixon, then playing right later in the game — in the lineup. Sherrod spent is off-season chasing love, just like Jesse Palmer. He was one of the 25 bachelors vying for Meredith Phillips’ heart on The Bachelorette. He didn’t make the first cut.

I left a little after 8 to watch the end of the sixth. Then, in between innings, the fans stood and removed their caps as a recording of “God Bless America” played. But in a unique, hometown twist that brings more meaning to the song than, say, the Yankees trotting out some famous singer every … single … game, photos of local residents serving in the military flashed on the video screen. Such a display brings a more human element to a practice that has become as routine at a ballgame as the National Anthem. A nice touch.

From Pawtucket and through Providence, I listened to the local broadcast of the game on the radio, losing the signal roughly halfway between Providence and the Connecticut state line. Driving through the night on 95, I listened to Springsteen and counted down the exits until I crossed the Tappan Zee and made my way back down the Palisades into New Jersey.

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