My Trip to the 2017 Major League Baseball All-Star Game

The Washington Nationals sent five All-Stars to Miami to represent the National League.
The Washington Nationals sent five All-Stars to Miami to represent the National League.

Tuesday night was my first time seeing Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Ryan Zimmerman in 2017 and it was at my first MLB All-Star Game in Miami.

I moved to Florida in January and the nearest major league team is the Tampa Bay Rays—who have no games scheduled against the Washington Nationals. The Miami Marlins is the next closest team, but the seven hour roundtrip always made watching the Nationals on MLB.TV the more appealing option.

The selection of five players from the Nationals to represent the National League in the All-Star Game changed my thought process. I needed to go to Miami!

StubHub had 3,000 tickets available and many were for sale at seemingly bargain prices the weekend before the game. The inexpensive prices were not just a fluke. Maury Brown, a Forbes contributor, explained that the average listing price of All-Star Game tickets for sale on secondary sites was down 31 percent from last year’s game.

I was given the afternoon off from work, so I purchased a ticket on Tuesday morning and I set my GPS for Marlins Park.

Parking decks surrounding the ballpark were reserved for fans with prepaid parking vouchers. Many private “entrepreneurs” were selling parking spaces around Marlins Park for $50. MLB advertised an alternative park-and-ride option that saved me $30 to spend inside the ballpark. This alternative shuttled fans from a downtown parking deck to Marlins Park and it eliminated the stress of parking.

The ballpark was appropriately decorated for the All-Star Weekend. The exterior of the stadium was branded accordingly, the outfield and batting circle sported All-Star Game logos, and MLB Network sportscasters Peter Gammons and Greg Amsinger reported live from the concourse.


The stadium also had a distinctive Miami feel. A band with drums and horns paraded around the stadium, fans lined up for signature cocktails and Cubans, and the Miami skyline shone brightly in the outfield.

I headed upstairs to the vista level and stopped at a souvenir stand and “Burger 305” for dinner before taking my seat for batting practice.

I was given the afternoon off from work, so I bought a ticket on StubHub and drove to Miami.
I was given the afternoon off from work, so I bought a ticket on StubHub and drove to Miami.

I was glad I arrived early enough to walk around the concourse for the first time because it ensured I was seated for the pre-game ceremonies. The introductions were even more thrilling than Opening Day introductions at Nationals Park because everyone announced was an All-Star. It was an added treat to watch the Nationals players acknowledge the crowd.

Pre-game ceremonies were accentuated by the presence of Latin-American Hall of Famers including newly elected (and hometown favorite) Ivan Rodriguez who threw ceremonial first pitches to Latin-American All-Stars from both leagues.

Latin-American players enshrined in the Hall of Fame threw out ceremonial first pitches before the All-Star Game.
Latin-American players enshrined in the Hall of Fame threw out ceremonial first pitches before the All-Star Game.

Scherzer began “stalking” around the mound almost immediately as he waited for home plate umpire Joe West to start the game, and the Nationals defense immediately made an impact. Jose Altuve hit a laser back to Scherzer who fed Zimmerman to record the first out of the game. Scherzer also struck out Aaron Judge and George Springer swinging to conclude his impressive outing.

Harper, like the rest of the All-Stars, walked up to the plate to his walk-up music, and he provided the first hit of the game for National League. The 2015 National League MVP made an athletic diving catch in right field to rob Salvador Perez of a base hit which culminated in a “Harper Hair Flip.”

The All-Star game was still exciting to watch despite its status as an exhibition game, especially because of the presence of so many players from the Nationals.

The MLB All-Star game retains a level of competition absent from the exhibition games of the other sports. Murphy’s ground out in the bottom of the third inning with the bases loaded wasn’t any less agonizing then a regular season game, in the moment. Additionally, Mookie Betts threw out Nolan Arenado from the warning track after tagging up on a deep fly ball from Zimmerman in one of the more exciting plays of the game.

The game was accentuated by other exciting moments including a game-tying home run from Yadier Molina, the Nelson Cruz photo-op with West and Robinson Cano’s go-ahead home run in the 10th inning off Wade Davis.

Overall, I am extremely glad that I went to the game. Miami was a terrific host and it was great to finally see the Nationals play, albeit during the Mid-Summer Classic.

 

Book Review: Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere

Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere is not a book for fans seeking inspiration about the road to “The Show.”
Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere is not a book for fans seeking inspiration about the road to “The Show.” (Photo from Barnes and Noble)

Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere is not a book for fans seeking inspiration about the road to “The Show.” Readers that are brave enough to look beyond the depressing scenery overshadowed by an ominous corn processing plant will be treated to a better understanding of the stereotypical life that exists in a small town with a minor league baseball team.

Author Lucas Mann traveled to Clinton, Iowa in 2010 and he embedded himself in the clubhouse of the Clinton LumberKings–a Midwest League Class A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners. Mann effectively portrays the city as a stop along the way for baseball prodigies like 19-year-old Nick Franklin while juxtaposing it as a baseball purgatory for struggling players.

Readers develop an interest and then an attachment to the minor league players whose experiences are chronicled in the book. Mann portrays these stories to readers the same way that he learned about them–as conversations over hamburgers at McDonald’s, in car rides home to crowded apartments and in noisy locker rooms.

His story telling makes readers realize that the players, who are idolized by a core group of fans referred to as “The Baseball Family,” are really just young men who happen to be playing baseball in Clinton competing for a promotion.

The narrative perspective allows readers to truly empathize with the athletes. Erasmo Ramirez, a hard throwing pitcher who left his home in Nicaragua, constantly tries to improve his numbers while finding comfort in the company of other Latino baseball players. The conversations with Ramirez will have make readers feel determined and they are left understanding how brave some players need to be to pursue a career in baseball.

They will feel also feel the excitement of Franklin’s journey toward a home record and his inevitable promotion. Mann never lets the readers feel too high as he also shares the stories of the players helplessly relegated to the bench awaiting demotion. 
The narrative culminates in an exciting postseason run for the LumberKings which will leave readers wondering how players have the focus to follow their passion as they compete in Clinton on a seemingly endless road to the majors.

Book Review: A Great Day in Cooperstown

Jim Reisler's A Great Day in Cooperstown will be the first of many baseball books I will review this offseason. (Photo from Amazon.com)
Jim Reisler’s A Great Day in Cooperstown will be the first of many baseball books that Nats Gallery Blog will review this offseason. (Photo from Amazon.com)

I cast my ballot on Election Day at the public library in Aurora Hills and went searching for the first of many baseball books to get me through the winter until baseball season resumes on Opening Day. Jim Reisler’s A Great Day In Cooperstown was a great book to start with because of its focus on the origins of baseball and the establishment of baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Reisler begins his 2006 book by describing Cooperstown, NY in 1939. Main Street was brimming with excitement. Major League Baseball All-Stars and legends fanned out across the town. Over 10,000 visitors packed the town to celebrate baseball’s centennial.

Fans flocked to the players for autographs and many players held court, telling their stories to anybody who was interested. Others cued up at the post office to purchase special issue postcards bearing a commemorative stamp and post office.

The book focuses a lot of attention on why the fanfare was centered in Cooperstown and Reisler debunks the myth that baseball’s rules were invented there Abner Doubleday during the spring of 1839. Reisler explains how the myth gained traction and became widely accepted in the lead up to the celebration of baseball’s centennial

Readers are introduced to each of inductees as they learn about a different aspect of the type of work that went into planning the celebration which included–speeches, the opening of the museum and a series of games played at a newly renovated Doubleday Field.

Resiler also describes the work of two little known figures–Alexander Cleland, a social worker from Glasgow, and Stephen Clark, a Cooperstown philanthropist–who were responsible for acquiring the memorabilia including the “funny old uniforms” and who worked with league officials to establish voting protocols for Hall of Fame ballots.

Washington Nationals fans may be particularly interested in the chapter about Walter Johnson. The chapter includes his brief remarks from his induction speech, the story about how he was discovered by the Washington Senators while playing for a semi-professional team in Idaho and the story about how he managed to throw three shutouts in four days.

The book concludes with a romantic description of the festivities that followed the induction speeches including a detailed recap of the game the Hall of Famers played in alongside the modern All-Stars at Doubleday Field.

I have not yet had the opportunity to visit the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, but I would highly recommend this book as an essential read for anybody traveling to Cooperstown for Hall of Fame Weekend 2017.

Nationals Winterfest 2016: Player Photos, Autographs and Game Shows

The Washington Nationals hosted Winterfest on Saturday and Sunday at The Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C.
The Washington Nationals hosted Winterfest on Saturday and Sunday at The Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C.

The Washington Nationals hosted Winterfest at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center over the weekend and it was a great opportunity for Nationals fans to meet and mingle with some of their favorite players. We highlighted some of the most exciting moments from Sunday in this blog post.

Meeting Players

One of the most exciting opportunities that fans have at Winterfest, that they are not usually afforded during the regular season, is the opportunity to take photos with players. There were two player photo stations set up near the main stage where players rotated taking photos with fans for thirty minute intervals. The meetings at the photo stations were not opportunities to get autographs, but they were terrific opportunities to welcome the new players and wish them well as they prepare for spring training.

There were five sessions at each photo station each day and fans interested in taking photos with players could meet up to 20 players each day.

Some of the players who posed at the photo stations on Sunday included: Chris Heisey and Wilmer Difo, Koda Glover and Max Scherzer, Trea Turner and Pedro Severino, Dusty Baker and Trevor Gott, Adam Eaton and Derek Norris, Ryan Zimmerman and Matt Grace as well as Michael A. Taylor and Matt Grace.

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These players were excited to meet their fans and they deserve major props!

Nationals players who were noticeably absent from Winterfest this season included Bryce Harper (who looked like he was enjoying himself at a Duke basketball game), Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon.

Getting Autographs

The best way to guarantee your autograph at Winterfest this year was to purchase an autograph voucher online as soon as they went on sale. A Nationals Insider email alerting fans that vouchers were going on sale at 10:00 a.m. on December 2 was distributed at 9:06 a.m. the same morning which resulted in many fans missing out an exciting opportunity. The vouchers were all sold out when I checked my email at 11:00 a.m. that morning, but someone, generously, gave me a voucher after they overheard me speaking about the Nationals in a conversation.

I redeemed my autograph voucher for a special bracelet and got in line for my autograph session featuring Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross. It was an amazing experience to meet Strasburg and Ross.

Player Interaction

Winterfest offers plenty of other opportunities to see players around the convention center floor at the different elements.  Eaton, Ross, and Scherzer stood with Santa Claus on Sunday afternoon for family photos.

Sammy Solis and Norris greeted fans at the top of The Slider.

A.J. Cole was also out and around the convention center. He started the clock for children at the steal home challenge.

New For 2016

There were a handful of new elements this year at Winterfest. The Ballpark of The Palm Beaches, the new spring training complex that the Nationals and Astros will share in 2017, had a presence behind The Slider. This area had a video playing about tourism sites in the area showcasing restaurants, spas and the beaches. Fans who stopped by also walked away with a koozie, spring training schedule, and pamphlets about new ballpark and other activities in the area.

An exhibit showcasing the Ballpark of The Palm Beaches was new for 2016.
An exhibit showcasing the Ballpark of The Palm Beaches was new for 2016.

There were also multiple new main stage events to complement the classic events like the gingerbread house contest. The games allowed fans to get a better feel for the personalities of their favorite Nationals.

Dusty Baker and Chris Speier teamed up against Strasburg and Tanner Roark for Smitten Mittens Duo Battle–a game show modeled after “The Newlywed Game.” The teammates took turns answering questions about their partners while one was behind the stage in a “soundproof room.” Some of the answers made the audience laugh including one where Speier said his favorite postgame meal was ribs when Baker predicted it would be salad. It was also funny to watch when Roark correctly anticipated that Strasburg’s favorite flight activity was to watch movies on his iPad.

X’s and Bows was another new game this year and it was hosted by Charlie Slowes–the veteran play-by-play announcer for the Washington Nationals. Ryan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg teamed up with members of the audience to answer trivia questions about Nationals players to get three of their ribbons or bows in a row. Some of the highlights of the event included Ryan Zimmerman answering a question about where he went to college (University of Virginia) and Stephen Strasburg answering a question about the year he was drafted (2009). It was also fun to watch the players correctly answer trivia questions about some of their teammates.

Room For Improvement

Winterfest was a terrific experience, but there are definitely areas where there can be room for improvement. Two of the longer lines were for the video pitch exhibit and the batting cages. Adding an additional two batting cages and encouraging some of the younger attendees to use the rookie batting cages  would go a long way at reducing the waiting time for attendees.

Winterfest planners can also consider rotating out some of the exhibits such as the New Era cap exhibit and the snow globe photo station to make room for more popular or new exhibits for 2017.

Commissioner: NCAA Athletic Scholarship Rule Puts Baseball at a Disadvantage

Rob Manfred (left), the commissioner of Major League Baseball, answered questions at The George Washington University on Monday, December 6, 2016. Mark Hyman, an assistant professor of sport management at GW, moderated a discussion headlined by Claire Smith, Richard Justice, and Tim Kurkjian
Rob Manfred (far left), the commissioner of Major League Baseball, answered questions at The George Washington University on Monday, December 6, 2016. Mark Hyman, an assistant professor of sport management at GW, moderated a discussion headlined by Claire Smith, Richard Justice, and Tim Kurkjian (left to right).

The stagnation in the number of African American players represented in Major League Baseball is attributable to the increased competition from the Dominican Republic and the sport’s inability to effectively recruit multi-sport athletes, according to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred.

Manfred told an audience, gathered at The George Washington University on Monday night, that there are added incentives that make sports like football and basketball more appealing than baseball to multi-sport athletes.

“You play football, you can go to the University of Michigan on a full ride…you can play on Saturday afternoons on national television,” he said. “If you’re really good, you can stay three years and go to the NFL.”

The commissioner also explained how a similar set of rules allow college basketball players to collect full scholarships. Basketball players, he said, also have an opportunity to leave school at a time when they can maximize their earning potential.

Baseball, Manfred said, has less to offer multi-sport athletes. High school students can sign professional contracts after graduating high school, but the life of a minor league baseball player is much less glamorous.

“Usually what happens there,” he said “is they put you on a plane and send you to play in a Florida State League where it’s about 102 in the shade and nobody’s in the stands.”

Manfred was critical of the NCAA rules that restrict college baseball programs to 11.7 scholarships.
Manfred was critical of the NCAA rules that restrict college baseball programs to 11.7 athletic scholarships.

Manfred was most critical of the lack of sufficient athletic scholarships that college baseball programs can offer student athletes.

An NCAA regulation limits baseball programs to just 11.7 athletic scholarships. This makes it difficult for coaches or recruiters to entice athletes to join their programs which carry 35 players who split scholarships or may be promised a scholarship if another player leaves the program.

The lack of available scholarships makes it even more difficult to attract a more diverse group of athletes who would prefer the certainty of scholarships in other sports, according to Manfred.

The evening’s discussion about a lack of diversity in baseball came just three months after Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones called baseball “a white man’s sport.” Jones, who is African American, made the statement when asked about why there had not been any protests among baseball players similar to those staged by players in the NFL during the National Anthem.

According to a study by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, just 8 percent of the players on 2016 Opening Day rosters were African American. The lack of involvement is also evident in college sports where just 2.9 percent of college baseball players in 2014-2015 were African American, according to an article in the Chicago Tribune.

Manfred asserted that MLB is making strides to promote the sport in African American communities. The youth baseball academies in Philadelphia, Compton, Houston, New Orleans, Cincinnati and Washington, D.C. are just some of the successful programs that are promoting sport. Two other academies in Texas and Kansas City are currently under construction and the goal, Manfred said, is to have academies in “every major league city.”

These academies along with programs like the Elite Development Invitational, a baseball training event that takes place in Historic Dodgertown, are geared toward popularizing and developing the sport among African American community.

The lack of a competitive NCAA scholarship system, however, may prevent these programs from achieving their fullest potential as more multi-sport athletes choose the free-ride and the fame.

Pitch: A Review of “The Interim” and Dusty Baker’s Support of Aroldis Chapman

Al Luongo, like Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker, had to face the media after making an insensitive off-the-cuff statement. (screenshot from Episode 2)
Al Luongo, like Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker, had to face the media after making an insensitive off-the-cuff statement. (Screenshot from Episode 2).

Ginny Baker did not make another start in the second episode of Pitch. “The Interim” focused, instead, on the San Diego Padres clubhouse and the team’s manager–Al Luongo.

One of the first scenes of the second episode involves a frustrated Al venting to team captain Mike Lawson in the clubhouse. Al quickly rattles off a list of the pressures that he is facing.

“My team’s broke. I’ve got pitchers taking swings at centerfields. I’ve got a girl getting dressed in a closet. I got a pissy owner. And on top of that, now I have psoriasis on my elbows.” Al then deadpans a solution, “So, I’m gonna fix my psoriasis. Your gonna fix the other stuff.”

This conversation makes it clear that the old-school manager is overwhelmed. Al lost control of personnel decisions in the Pilot episode when owner Frank Reid called up Ginny to make her debut. In addition to losing control of personnel decisions, Al’s team was seemingly “broken” by the decisions of the Padres players who were resistant to having Ginny on the team.

Before the audience can start to feel bad for the frustrated manager, a breaking news story on MLB Network revealed Al made a controversial statement about Ginny two years earlier. Al nervously looked back at Ginny when the video clip was played on the team bus.

Al was very embarrassed by a video surfaced showing him make crude remarks about Ginny. (Screenshot from Episode 2).
Al was very embarrassed by a video that surfaced showing him making crude remarks about Ginny. (Screenshot from Episode 2).

Al told a scrum of reporters, “Yeah, Well I hope she makes it to The Show one day. I mean have you seen her? Easy on the eyes. Sure a lot of the guys would love to have her in the locker room.”

The statement Al made was absolutely inappropriate. It undermined Ginny’s talent as an athlete and objectified her beauty as something that would keep the major leaguers entertained.

Al ends up making a very genuine apology to Ginny and then reads a statement to the press. Al made a reference to his daughter in his private apology and also added, “I’m probably missing something here. The world kinda passed me by when they made the Internet. Anyway, it won’t happen again.”

Al’s statement to the media was more “boiler-plate” and seemingly ripped right out of a book by a professional PR agency. At the end of his statement he is barraged with questions about the state of affairs in his clubhouse and he relents, “Geez..can we just go back to talking about how pretty the girl is?”

These statement about the Internet and his slip at the end of the statement were both revealing. The statements show that although Al may be a good manager, he struggles with the added burdens of managing in 2016.

Managers may have been able to get away with speaking with more candor to the media during the early stages of his career. Less eloquent or poorly phrased statements may not have been printed. The times, however, have changed and managers are expected to be able to speak to the media with the knowledge that raw video of their statements will be released to the public.

This episode incident may have resonated with baseball fans who tuned into coverage of the 2015 Winter Meetings in Nashville, Tennessee.

During a press conference with reporters, Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker made a statement about Aroldis Chapman–a free-agent closer who was under investigation by Major League Baseball for a domestic violence incident.  

Baker, who was in his first months as manager at the time, is known for his years of experience in the sport as an All-Star outfielder and as a manager. He is very relaxed when he speaks and he speaks with candor. The relaxed nature of his interviews can be seen in his body language during post-game interviews where he can be seen scratching himself or adjusting his jersey while answering questions.

Baker defended Chapman, his pitcher from when he managed the Cincinnati Reds, from accusations that he “pushed” and “choked” his girlfriend during an October altercation. He said, “I don’t believe the reports,” and he questioned whether or not Chapman was the aggressor in the altercation.

Baker elevated his support by calling Chapman, a “heck of a guy.” He added, “I will go on the record and say I wouldn’t mind having Chapman.”

Baker who speaks off-the-cuff during his meetings would later walk back his comments and slip the same way Al did at the end of his interview by insinuating that African and Latin American players throw the ball harder than white players and that acquiring Chapman would help make the game more diverse.  

The fictional incident in Pitch is another great example of how the TV series is doing a great job at reflecting reality in Major League Baseball. Baseball is not like a movie script. Players and managers are fallible and Pitch continues to do a great job by not romanticizing the game.