Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Memories From Milwaukee

Originally written on May 22, 2009

While I had already decided I wanted to see every Major League Baseball park, my first exposure to stadia outside the New York area came in the spring of 2001. I was 15 at the time, and while the long parade of college visits most American High Schoolers endure was not yet in full swing, my mother had wanted to visit my sister at the University of Wisconsin that April and figured it was as good a time as any to get the show underway. Our first stop came in Evanston, Illinois, where I would be exposed to Northwestern University, an event that would obviously have longterm ramifications. I was hoping to see Wrigley Field for the first time that week, and I did, but the Cubs had hit the road, and while my mother and I did accidentally wind up attending a White Sox-Twins game at the new Comiskey Park, a story for another time, I have a far stronger recollection – and perhaps connection – to a later stop we would make in Wisconsin.

This probably has to do with the fact that the Mets were involved.

When my mother and I had planned out the trip to visit my sister in Madison, I noticed that Milwaukee, not a far drive away, was on the schedule for the Amazins’ current road trip. This more or less set in stone that whenever the Mets are within 200 miles of me on the road, I have to attend. After begging and pleading, we finally bought tickets for myself, my mother, Stephanie and her roommate.

In both Chicago and Milwaukee, this would be the first time I saw parks that came in the modern style. While we were impressed when we saw Comiskey, the excitement would fade after the trip to Miller Park and Milwaukee made it clear the Sox had missed the boat. Granted, given that Miller Park was in its first season and Comiskey in its 10th the fight was not fair. The Brewers had had time to see where the popular architectural fads would go before breaking ground on their new home.

But advantages aside, what a home it is. While Comiskey was the first stadium I saw a game in that hadn’t been built before 1965, Miller Park was the first I had been to that fell under the architectural trends started in Baltimore when the Orioles cut the ribbon on Camden Yards in 1992. As well, as the Brewers’ new home had only been in use for three weeks at the time I got to it, it hadn’t yet lost its new car smell. The floors were all smooth and clean, the concourses were wide with direct views of the field, the plaza outside was bereft of litter – even the parking lot signs were shinier.

For someone who had spent their life walking the cold, characterless, narrow concourses of Shea Stadium and Yankee Stadium, this was an overwhelming wakeup call for what the baseball viewing experience could be. It was clear that a stadium did not simply have to be the vessel for telling the story. It could aesthetically become one of the characters.

Miller Park is a visually striking building from the outside. Its external walls are covered in red brick that give it the flavor and appearance of a traditional, older park, but at the same time, the stadium is fitted with a retractable roof that could never be confused with a structural element of the 1920s. It is a deep green that finds its apex above the stadium’s main gate, behind home plate, and fans out across the top of the park. While the roof when closed does make the experience feel somewhat artificial, the areas above the brick wall and beneath the edge of the roof are large glass sections that allow natural light to pour into the stadium. The entire back wall of the building also opens up to allow sunlight to illuminate the playing surface.

The sightlines are phenomenal and the fans are a dedicated bunch who are well-humored when the Brew Crew is in lean times, and raucous in the winning seasons. The highlight for many at the stadium is, of course, the Sausage race, which takes place midway through the 6th inning, when contestants dressed as a hot dog, german sausage, polish sausage, italian and chorizo sprint around the diamond. The silly, but highly enjoyable spectacle has been copied in numerous other stadiums.

The race also gets a fair amount of televised publicity, and may have received the most attention in 2003 when the Pirates’ Randall Simon knocked down the italian sausages mid-race with his bat as a joke. When it became apparent that he had injured University of Wisconsin student Mandy Block who was racing in the costume, the contrite Simon gracefully accepted a three-day suspension and his $432 fine after being cited for disorderly conduct. He purchased a free sausage sandwich for every fan in section 432 when he returned to Milwaukee as a member of the Cubs weeks later, while Block, and this is not a joke, would be awarded a certificate of bravery from the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council.



Despite the raging popularity of the sausage race, however, my favorite in-game quirk of the Brewers is the tradition of Bernie Brewer dropping down a gigantic slide in the outfield after each Milwaukee home run. Given the jet stream in the park, this happens quite a bit. My love for this tradition comes not out of zest for seeing a cartoony, mustachioed mascot being dropped on a platform to wave around an oversized Brewers flag, but rather because every time I see it, I try to imagine Bernie Brewer sliding into an enormous mug of beer. Not only would this be infinitely more awesome than landing on a raised platform, but it would be keeping a connection alive to the Brewers’ former home of Milwaukee County Stadium, where Bernie did, in fact, dive into a giant mug of beer each time a Brewer went yard.

The platform will have to do.

Most of my first visit was spent staring in awe and watching my mother suffer one anxiety attack after another as she feared for my safety when I made obnoxious comments to native Wisconsinites about the superiority of my defending-National League champion Mets. Coming through for me as they always do, the Mets lost that night. In the years since, I have found the Mets often lose when I see them on the road. They love to make their brash fan base look good, after all. On a positive note, the game was particularly memorable for the fact that defensively challenged Mike Piazza threw out not one, but two would-be base stealers in a single inning. As I remarked at my surprise, a Brewers fan in front of me asked me when the last time Piazza had turned that trick was. I told him I wasn’t sure he ever had.

The four of us all received souvenir fishing hats with a logo for Miller Park’s inaugural season on them as a free promotional item, which is surely buried in a pile somewhere in my childhood home. As I began attending Northwestern University two years later, less than 90 miles south of Milwaukee, this would not be my last stop at Miller Park. In fact, over several visits whenever the Mets were in town, I have become more and more familiar and more and more a fan of its grounds. I have developed fond memories of chatting with other displaced Mets fans and receiving angry scowls from seven-year-old girls when I openly cheered.

On one occasion I had taken a weekend vacation to Milwaukee with my friends Mike Trawicki, Amit Marwah and Blake Kluger for some Mets-Brewers baseball, a round of golf and, of course, Culver's. On the way up we would see some very interesting license plates and be fairly confused by a sign for America's Black Holocaust Museum. I would find that golf is indeed, as Mark Twain put it, a good walk spoiled. In my case, I broke a wedge while frustratingly banging it into the fairway leaving Mike to talk the course into not making me pay for it. The highlight of that trip was probably Mrs. Trawicki’s homemade cinnamon bun frosting, though a venture to try Mike’s long-vaunted Milwaukee Mexican food comes close, but my favorite incident came when I tried my hand at entrepreneurial negotiations at the stadium. As a 15-year-old Cracker Jack vendor walked by I asked him if he was interested in making a deal.

“How much for that big Cracker Jack bag you have around your shoulder?”

“Uh….”

“I’ll give you $20 for it.”

“Um… let me ask my manager.”

The summer before, a co-counselor at Fairview Lake named Cody Umbach had tried the same trick at a minor league New Jersey Cardinals game and come away with a free souvenir simply because they had extras. Fifteen minutes later when the vendor returned, I’d find in the majors, even in Milwaukee, they weren’t quite as generous.

“Uh, yeah, my boss told me they’d fire me if I sold my bag to you.”

“Well, what if you went to the bathroom and somebody ‘stole’ it?”

“I don’t think we can do that after I already asked my boss about it.”

Undeterred, another Cracker Jack vendor came by, who must have been in his early 40s and I posed him the same question.

“Eighty bucks,” he said.

I passed.

The memories weren’t always good ones at the stadium, mostly because the Mets, despite generally being the superior team, usually lost. One such day, Bill Hall clubbed a walkoff home run on Mother’s Day in 2006 with his pink breast cancer awareness bat to send the Mets and Pedro Martinez to a defeat.

The game I will remember most clearly in the stadium, however, was from the day before, when I, my girlfriend at the time, Jess, and my senior year college roommate Zach Silka had driven up to Milwaukee to see a thriller of a game. The Mets would actually prevail after Paul Lo Duca’s solo shot off Derrick Turnbow lifted New York to a 9-8 win just a half-inning after Milwaukee had erased a four-run deficit on back-to-back homers. The game, however, is not memorable to me because of its thrilling, and satisfying conclusion, nor is it memorable because my friends Deek and Feiny, who drove in from Madison to meet me for the game nearly picked a fight with some of the drunker Brewers fans in the crowd.

Instead, I will remember it because despite arriving to Milwaukee well in advance of the first pitch, we had underestimated the Dairy State’s fascination with Turnbow, their mulletted closer. That night was Derrick Turnbow bobblehead doll night, with his mane being immortalized with actual glued on hair. It was particularly ironic that he should come in to take the loss in a tie game in the top of the ninth inning, but as I noted, players often suffer bizarrely poor performances on bobblehead nights in their honor for no apparent reason. As Feiny facetiously pointed out, “Babe Ruth died on his bobblehead doll day.”

The demand for this particular promotion was so strong that we struggled to find parking anywhere near the stadium and eventually put our car next to Deek’s in a vacant lot next to a McDonald’s which sat down the road from the stadium. The five of us didn’t enter the turnstiles until the sixth inning.

I probably should have assumed ahead of time that the entire state of Wisconsin gets in gear when there are limited edition free nodding statues in the mix. The stadium’s attendance that night was well in excess of its seated capacity, as the up-and-coming Brewers – they would reach the postseason two years later for the first time since 1982 – proved a strong draw. Doubly so on promotional nights. I would leave the park satisfied considering the Mets won the day, but I would be lying if I claimed to be calm and relaxed throughout the entire course of trying to find a parking spot. This irritation was only worsened when I found that Deek and Feiny decided, despite the game already being five innings old, to actually go into McDonald’s after parking. Fortunately, they were so hungry that they managed to scarf down their food as we walked to the building, picked up our tickets and entered a mere 2/3 of the way through the game.

But we did get our bobblehead dolls – and in the limited edition throwback uniform to boot.

Zach in the meantime felt the need to overcome whatever stress he was recently enduring by drinking a lot of beer. And quickly. Two innings after we showed up it was very clear I was going to be driving home as Silka was in no condition to do so himself. Considering we only got to watch three innings of the game, the amount of time for him to sober up was practically nil. Zach had also convinced us to divert from our original plan of spending the night in the party town of Madison because Deek and Feiny broke it to him that at this point of early May, most University of Wisconsin students were studying for finals or home after finishing them.

The inebriated Silka convinced me we must drive back to Evanston for a party that wound up never happening, and after he told a number of Mets fans at the stadium that he was from Syosset, New York instead of his actual hometown of Toledo, Ohio, Zach quickly passed out in the back of his SUV as I guided it back to Evanston. Halfway through the ride Zach woke up and told me we absolutely had to pull off at the next hotel so he could use the bathroom. This required going through an unmanned tollbooth, which we shockingly didn’t have enough change on us to pay for. As Zach threw pennies in the bucket and insisted we go through anyway, I stopped at a hotel where he calmly went inside to ask the front desk where the rest room was.

A few minutes later Silka emerged. Rather than walk to the car he casually strolled around the side of the building and relieved himself behind a dumpster. Evidently they wouldn’t let him use the bathroom inside. It seems strange that my strongest memory from visiting Miller Park might be seeing my roommate get turned away from a public rest room, but knowing the zaniness of that entire night, it sort of makes sense.

And knowing what shape he was in, well, I can’t say I blame them.

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