Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Successful ballclubs and Chuck Armstrong

The first articles on this blog were about baseball, and Weisenheimer is a big fan, but our readers (if any) may have noticed that we rarely mention the Seattle Mariners.

I don't much like the M's right now. This is something of a reversal. My sweetie, the scorer, and I actually let the Mariners choose our wedding date, back in the day when they were no longer horrid, but not yet all that good, either. (My sweetie arrived in town shortly after Griffey, and things got a lot better in Seattle. I still adore my sweetie. Griffey: not so much, though I dislike him less than the other two major traitors.) We wanted to see the "new" ballpark in Baltimore, so chose a wedding date the weekend before the M's were to play the O's at Camden Yards (not the "new" Memorial Stadium as I'm sure some of you wags were thinking.) We'd get 20-game ticket packages in the 200 level of the Kingdome, spend most home Saturdays at the ballpark and watch most of the rest of the games on television.

Times have changed. Weisenheimer went to one game this year -- free tickets in April. Last year, no games. My sweetie hasn't seen the local nine play since at least '06. A couple of years ago we had our cable TV disconnected; all we really wanted to watch was the Mariners, but watching the product of abject stupidity became too much. We still, usually, have the games on the radio, but only pay attention when there's some hollering. Usually that just means Rick Rizzs is faking a call of a play that happened 45 seconds ago while they were still in a commercial break.

We still pay attention to the Mariners, but we're no longer paying customers.

One of the ways I do follow the M's is through the blog U.S.S. Mariner. As is probably appropriate for an entity covering this team, USSM is a simmering pit of negativity. As with a multi-vehicle collision on the freeway, one can hardly not look! The other day the guys had an excellent point/counterpoint debate. One contended that M's fans are doomed for eternity, or at least as long as Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong are running the club. The other contended that success under the pair is not impossible, as the club has some positives and Lincoln and Armstrong have had winners before.

Should Armstrong go?
Armstrong showed up in Seattle with George Argyros in 1983, just after the Mariners had finished a 60-102 season, losing 100+ games for the third time in six years. There weren't a whole lot of expectations on those early clubs. By contrast, delusional managment and much of the fandom looked at last year's fluke finish, and the additions of "proven winners" Eric Bedard and Carlos Silva, as sure signs the club would be a serious pennant contender this season. (USSM and Weisenheimer did not share this view.)

Now we know that the 2008 season has been a pratfall of epic proportions. A club with a payroll in excess of $100 million has lost more than 100 games and will finish about 40 games behind the division champion Angels, and 16 or 17 back of third-place Oakland.

In 32 seasons the Mariners have had just three first-place finishes and one wild-card for four playoff appearances. They've finished dead last in a four-team division four of the past five years. They can no longer scream poverty; the club and the ballpark are money machines, the payroll is more than adequate for creation of a good team. They just don't seem to have a clue. Trade a good lefty reliever and four minor league prospects, including a promising outfielder we sorely need, for Eric Bedard? Jason Varitek AND Derek Lowe for Heathcliff Slocumb?

Take a walk, Chuck
Weisenheimer believes the Mariners certainly could morph into a winning club under the current management, just as flying simians could emerge from digestive systems all over town. The club, on the other hand, remains a respectable draw despite averaging 90 losses over the last five seasons. Can that keep up under the pressure of continued losing and a likely housecleaning this off-season? The club's Web site now urges visitors to "place a deposit for 2009 season tickets at Safeco Field." Weisenheimer will remain a non-paying customer, and my guess is attendance will sink like the M's broadcast contract and WaMu stock.

Armstrong and Lincoln should join Bill Bavasi and John McLaren on the unemployment line. The club is a mess, unless all you care about is the bottom line.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

ACT's "Intimate Exchanges" entertains

Alan Ayckbourn's Intimate Exchanges is a major challenge for actors. From a common opening scene, the show is eight different plays with 16 possible endings, all depending on choices made by characters at key junctions along the way. On top of that, the play is written for just two actors playing up to 10 different roles.

I was at Powell's Books in Portland a few weeks before we were to see Intimate Exchanges at Seattle's ACT Theatre, and combed the store's extensive drama collection for a script so that I could read the other versions and endings. Powell's didn't have it. Perhaps that's a good thing. I learned from a New York Times article about an off-Broadway revival of the show last spring that the whole shebang runs 750 pages -- longer, so they say, than Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth combined. The New York outfit, 59E59 Theaters, claimed to be the first in the U.S. to produce the work in its entirety.

ACT and director Kurt Beattie took on a reasonably manageable production, doing just four different endings. This still left actors Marianne Owen and R. Hamilton Wright playing six characters with 24 costumes and up to 30 quick changes during a performance. The speed with which they made the changes was amazing. These aren't just characters set apart from each other by a different scarf or cap. Owen and Wright make complete costume changes, including shoes and socks, often in very short trips offstage.

The main characters are Toby and Celia Teasdale, he the drunken headmaster of a British school, she his unhappy spouse. In the version we saw, Celia runs off and sets up a catering business (and romance) with Lionel Hepplewick, the school's groundskeeper and a self professed "master baker." (Ayckbourn occasionally gets a wee bit juvenile with his humor, but there's plenty of wit afoot.) Hepplewick is clearly not the baker he makes himself out to be, as their first big gig turns into a disaster of forgotten ingredients and inedible, rock-hard bread.

Both actors are outstanding, but I have to say that Owen steals the show with a couple of fabulous scenes, one in which main character Celia Teasdale goes off the deep end in a manic tea party under the tent on the school grounds, and the other as the old battle-ax Irene Pridworthy, who jolly well tells everyone how things ought to be. Pridworthy's staccato laugh -- HAH! -- put me in mind a bit of Andrea Martin's character Edith Prickley, the station manager on the old SCTV television series.

The play didn't really work all that well as a story. After the big breakdown scene, we pick up the characters five years later. Celia and Toby are split, he still at the school, she as a successful businesswoman. Lionel is her chauffeur. They're at a funeral -- the ending of several of the alternate plays. The performances are marvelous, and the work of the costume changes a sight to behold. Ayckbourn's fun with language is most entertaining as well. Intimate Exchanges is a madcap farce.

One wonders how differently an audience member would view the show after seeing more than one of the possible endings. After all, the whole 16-ending enchilada has some 17 hours of dialog, we're told. Alas, Weisenheimer took in just the one, which happened to be on the last weekend of the production. Seeing more than one might have given one a better sense of Ayckbourn's point that seemingly trivial decisions, and a big dose of fate, have a lot to do with the ending.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Yakima Bears 5, Tri-City Dust Devils 3

September 1, 2008

The city of Yakima, Washington was a ghost town on Labor Day. Even some of the wineries were closed on a Monday of a three-day holiday weekend. They must have known what they were doing. The kid at Wineglass Cellars said we were the first touristy types to happen by in quite a while that afternoon. But were the crowds thin because the wineries were closed, or were the wineries closed because the crowds were thin? We had all afternoon to make the major trek from Pasco to Yakima, and managed to find enough open wineries in between to stretch out the trip and amuse ourselves (and re-stock the cellar a bit, thank goodness!) Still, we rolled into Yakima around 5 p.m. before a seven o'clock game, and we were hungry. Alack and alas, there were precious few eateries open. Weisenheimer is not a real businessman, but I've got to figure that if I were in the hospitality business, I'd try to be open on a holiday Monday.

Finally we managed to find a place that was not fast food and still open. As Gasperetti's was shuttered, the best we could do was the Depot Restaurant, which is in the old train depot in downtown Yakima. The food was decent but unremarkable. At least they had a nice list of local wines, some of which we'd run across on our way into town.

The ghost town tale extended to the baseball game between the Yakima Bears and the Tri-City Dust Devils as well. The announced number of tickets sold for the contest was 1,536. If there were more than 500 people at the ballpark, then I'm your aunt Tillie.

Yakima County Stadium is kind of cool. For one thing, it's not named for an insurance company or credit union. For another, it has some interesting dimensions: just 293 feet down the lines, though it gets deeper in a hurry, especially down the left field line, where it goes to 340 no more than 20-25 feet from the line. While the actual scoreboard was on the blink, the giant video screen was functional. Norm Johnson, a candidate for State Representative, had a video commercial on the board at one point between innings. I don't really recall any political ads sponsoring games before. One other ad at the ballpark was for someplace called Bi-Mart, advertised as "The right fit for the Northwest." I thought that was rather enlightened.

A few other ballpark notes: The Yakima mascot, Boomer the Bear, wasn't very active. Maybe he is already ready to hibernate. The stadium also had a best and worst. They had the best vendor of the Weisenheimer 2008 ballpark tour. He was once heard to holler, "You can run away now, but eventually you're going to have to come to grips with the fact that you need some peanuts." Freud would be proud! They had the absolutely worst rendition of Take Me Out to the Ball Game in the history of the song. They brought a bunch of kids out to sing in the middle of the seventh. This is well and good so far as it goes, but they were off key, off beat, and off the charts horrible. Aren't they teaching music in the schools over there?

The game
Those of you sick souls following closely may have noticed that Yakima and Tri-City also played yesterday, but in Pasco, not Yakima. The two natural rivals, separated by less that 70 miles (call it the I-82 series) closed out the Northwest League schedule with six games against each other: One in Pasco, one in Yakima, another in Pasco, two more in Yakima, and the finale in the Tri-Cities. The Labor Day game, the fourth of the sixth, was won by the Bears 5-3 in front of the home "crowd." The Dust Devils scored a run in the top of the first inning to take an early lead, but the Yakima came back with three in the bottom of the first and led the rest of the way. Shortstop Justin Parker struck the key blow for Yakima in the first, a tie-breaking two-out, two-run triple. Tri-City made a couple of errors that helped the Bears score two more in the fifth to go up 5-1.

The Devils made a game of it, scoring two in the seventh, with the help of an error, to pull within 5-3. They put the tying runs on in the ninth thanks to a couple of walks by Yakima hurler Jordan Meaker, but couldn't bring them in, leaving the win for the home team, again.

A couple of pieces of free advice for Tri-City. The pale yellow lettering on the road gray uniforms just wasn't working for Weisenheimer. They need unis that are more legible. Also, given the success of the Tampa Bay club of the American League this year after they dropped the "Devil" from their name and became, simply, the Rays, I believe the Dust Devils should drop all demonic references and simply become the Tri-City Dust for next season.

You're welcome!

Box score

Tri-City Dust Devils 7, Yakima Bears 0

August 31, 2008

When we drove up to Gesa Stadium in Pasco, Washington I expected it to be built in the shape of a pyramid. It was standard stadium shape with the exception of an interesting feature, visible at some distance, that Chris Mulick of the Tri-City Herald called on his blog the "Margarita Prentice Memorial Sun Shade." As Mulick points out in his post, Sen. Prentice is not dead, but he named the sun shade for the chair of the state Senate Ways & Means Committee, who two years ago helped secure funding for improvements, such as sun shades, at a number of minor league ballparks in the state, most of which Weisenheimer and his Sweetie, the scorer, have visited on our 2008 ballpark tour.

The shade's purpose is what you'd suspect: to prevent fans in the third-base stands from roasting to death. That's all well and good. However, on this last-day-of-August game, Weisenheimer noted that, as we sat in our seats behind third base, the sun was well to the first base side of the shade. We didn't roast, because it was breezy and cool, but we couldn't see much until the sun ducked behind the stands shortly after the game started. Still, it might be worth looking into getting a bigger shade! Tough budget year coming up, though.

Gesa is not a mis-spelling of a city in Egypt, it's actually a credit union serving the Tri-Cities. Only one real beef with the ballpark experience, beside the too-small sun shade, and that is that Gesa Stadium has one of those hollering announcers that make one suspect they're on meth, or borrowed from rasslin. Plus one minor beef. My Sweetie opines that "Dusty," the mascot of the Tri-City Dust Devils, "looks like a broken teacup." That's not a very scary mascot.

Fans at Gesa were chatty, as we found in Boise as well. My Sweetie's baseball shoes get noticed wherever we go, and that's always a conversation starter. We're also amazed at how many people think you're up to something when you're keeping score, probably advance scouts for another team or something. Or maybe some sort of blogger writing stuff only he will see. Also, why isn't there kettle corn at any of the parks? We haven't found any on this trip.

The game
I wrote the lead for the story about this game in the second inning. It was: We are diehards.

The Dust Devils scored seven runs against the Yakima Bears in the second inning, on six hits, two walks, and a Bear error. By the end of the frame, the game was nearly an hour old, by which time the previous night in Boise we were probably through five. I pictured us enduring a five-hour sloppy game, by the end of which we'd be among the 12 remaining fans sticking it out.

Happily, it didn't turn out that way. In fact, there was no more scoring, and the Dust Devils beat the Bears 7-0. Tri-City pitcher Sheng-An Kuo who, according to the game notes, had been "roughed up" in his previous start, against Spokane, for six earned runs on eight hits in two innings, was stellar. Kuo worked 7 1/3 innings and allowed just two hits while striking out nine. He was yanked after throwing 93 pitches without walking a batter. Nothing wrong with a complete game, though. J.R. Murphy finished up the two-hitter, fanning three of the final five outs and getting the other two on pop-ups.

Tri-City could have had more than their seven runs, as they stranded 10 runners, leaving the bases loaded in the third and the fifth. Yakima never got much going, only twice getting a runner as far as third base: once in the seventh and again in the eighth. The hurlers did a decent job after starter Ian Harrington was bounced in the second. The contest ended at a reasonable 9:55 p.m. I didn't have to use the diehards lead. Or lede, as the cool kids seem to be calling it these days.

After the game we had a brief chat with a gentleman and his young son, who thought us a little confused. I was wearing my Spokane Indians cap and a Mariners windbreaker. My Sweetie, the scorer, had on a Tacoma Rainiers jacket. None of those teams were playing. We explained our tour. Turns out the pair were on a quest of their own, a week-long trek to see six games in Washington. Not quite our "international" tour, but a nice trip anyway.

Onward to Yakima!

Box score

Monday, September 8, 2008

Boise Hawks 1, Spokane Indians 0

August 30, 2008

It was refreshing to drive up to Boise Memorial Stadium in Boise, Idaho and actually find some truth in advertising. "Feed the Economy!" blared the sign on the grandstand. "BUY HAWKS TICKETS NOW!" The sign also features a little kid stuffing his gob with a hot dog, and a big old arrow pointing down to the box office, just in case there was any confusion about where to buy the Hawks tickets. We were there to feed the economy, and did a darn fine job of it.

I hadn't seen the sign, so I bought my tickets in advance, on-line, using this Internet thing that I'm sure you've heard about. This seemed prudent. I didn't really want to spend an entire day driving from beautiful West Seattle to pretty-attractive-in-a-different-sort-of-way Boise only to find the game was sold out because The Chicken was there. This is fine. Throughout the Weisenheimer 2008 minor league baseball tour I've purchased all of the tickets on-line. What irked me, just the slightest bit, was that Boise didn't offer me the option to simply pick up my tickets at will-call, a fairly easy option offered by every other club on the tour. (Weisenheimer likes will call. Being a naturally forgetful sort, I'd have been somewhere around LaGrande, Oregon, and asked my sweetie, the scorer, "Hey, do you have the tickets?" There's no going back at that point.) No, Boise insisted that I print my tickets at home. OK, fine... but they STILL dinged me for the couple of bucks for a CONVENIENCE charge. Whose convenience, I ask? All was well; I printed them at home and didn't forget to bring them. But WTF?

Otherwise, our experience with the Boise Hawks was grand. Just moments after entering the ballpark we were greeted by a very enthusiastic gentleman who shook my hand, exclaimed he was president of the booster club, was glad to see me, and was really pleased that, "We clinched the pennant yesterday." It took me a few moments to figure out that he was the head of the Spokane Indians boosters, and the greeting was because I was wearing my Indians cap (purchased in the Lilac City in the dark days before Weisenheimer became a blog) and that, by happenstance, the Hawks were hosting the Spokanes on this August evening. I love the Indians when I'm there, but in baseball you root, root, root for the home team.

A few other notes about Boise Memorial Stadium:

They need cup holders. The problem of where to put your beer is compounded by the fact that, when you're blogging about the game, suddenly you also have to juggle notebook, camera, and writing implement in addition to your hot dog, peanuts, and brew.

The seats are uncomfortable, especially for one of such girth as Weisenheimer who has been on a 10-hour drive earlier in the day.

There were a couple of Butt-Heads sitting behind us, but no Beavises. Huh-huh. Huh.

Humphrey the Hawk is a pretty good mascot, and he patted my sweetie, the scorer, on the head, which was a first she didn't seem to appreciate all that much. The skunk from "Stinker's," which is, apparently, a gas/convenience store in the Boise area and a sponsor of the night's game, was also in attendance.

The game
Weisenheimer has seen, estimating conservatively, 1,000 baseball games in his lifetime. (They pile up when you're covering the games or living at the park when bleacher seats are $1.50.) In that time, the only no-hitter I've seen happened in a seven-inning A-ball game in Everett sometime in the late 80s. I saw Nolan Ryan throw a one-hitter against the Mariners in June of '89, but this wasn't a suspenseful one-hitter: Harold Reynolds led off the bottom of the first with a single, stole second, went to third on an error, and scored on a sacrifice fly by number-three hitter Greg "Pee Wee" Briley (which ought to be a sure sign that the M's of that year were just as pathetic as the current version that used to bat Jose Vidro cleanup.) That was that, as Ryan fanned 11.

On this night in Boise the Spokane nine didn't manage a hit until there were two out in the seventh, when ninth-place-hitting left fielder Edward Martinez dunked a single to left against Bubba O'Donnell. Curiously, O'Donnell was the second pitcher for the Hawks, starter Jeff Beliveau going 4 1/3, fanning eight, walking three, and allowing no hits before calling it a night. The single by Martinez was the only safety for Spokane, possibly feeling the after-effects of their pennant-clinching effort and celebration of the previous evening, and starting the "scrubs," if such a distinction is necessary in short-season A-ball.

In short, it was close. The Martinez single was the only hit Spokane was to record, and Weisenheimer and his sweetie, the scorer, have still never seen a no-hitter togehter. (We must note at this juncture that, according to the league officials in the ballpark on this day, Spokane got two hits, Martinez being inexplicably given a single on a routine grounder that was muffed by Boise third sacker David Macias in the second inning. The scorer, who clearly has some work to do if s/he hopes to advance to AA, also blew a call in the sixth, giving Boise's Sean Hoolebeke a single on a play that clearly was deserving of an error.) By the time of the one real hit Boise had the game well in hand, having put a singleton up on the board in the second, when Hoorelbeke led off with a walk, advanced to third on a one-out single by Dwayne Kemp, and scored on catcher Pat Mahoney's grounder to first. Boise got nine hits, including two each by Macias and Hoorelbeke.

Spokane starter Martin Perez pitched admirably, though he never retired the Hawks in order. Perez worked seven innings and scattered nine hits, walking just one while fanning seven. The Indians stranded 10 runners, no mean feat when you get just one hit. They did work six walks, had a couple of guys hit by pitches, and Boise made one error. But they didn't get a guy to third until the ninth, when shortstop Edward Koncel walked with one out, took second on a wild pitch and third on a grounder to first. But he died there when third sacker Jacob Kaase grounded to second.

Box score

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Yellow Church Café earns praise

It's probably not a good idea to ride, whether on an ass or in an Acura TL, into town on the local citizenry's high holy day with expectations that the populace will drop its festivities to feed you breakfast. Thus Weisenheimer was driven to some trepidation, hungry and rolling into Ellensburg, Washington mid-morning on Aug. 30, to find the masses already massing into downtown for the annual western parade that celebrates the burg's annual high point known as the Ellensburg Rodeo.

"Tarnsarnitall," I muttered to myself, scooting down a side street to avoid the main drag/parade route. "Where's a city slicker going to get some vittles in this bronc-ridin' town on a morning like this?"

As my sweetie, the scorer, is armed with an iPhone, we no longer have to wander through strange towns looking for neon signs that read "Bacon and decaf" in order to find a suitable breakfast. Indeed, she'd already identified a strong candidate and even had a favorite chosen from the on-line menu, we'd punched the address into the car's GPS, and the route was plotted. (Though much of Ellensburg is in what Lola, our GPS lady, likes to refer to as "unverified area" into which we'd be crazy to venture and don't come crying to Acrua's lawyers if it doesn't work out the way you'd intended.)

I figured the place, if it was even open, would be a madhouse. I was amazed, then, when we pulled up to the Yellow Church Café to find it open, to find a street parking space right around the corner, and to be shown to a table without a wait.

The Yellow Church Café is just what it purports to be: a café in a yellow church. It was, according to the Web site, built by German Lutherans in 1923, giving Weisenheimer and his sweetie some heritage in the place, though the building has also served over time as a private home, a architect's office, and an art gallery. We suspect that the building was not painted yellow when the Lutherans owned it. We also suspect the floor of the café is the original wood; it is scuffed and worn where several generations of poor miserable sinners fessed up. Through our boundless mercy, we forgive them (though they may well deserve temporal AND eternal punishment) for vacating the place and letting it fall into the hands of a couple of pastor's kids who are now the owners of the joint.

The breakfast fare is, as indicated by the Web site, "praiseworthy." Weisenheimer enjoyed the sunrise scrambler, a standard scrambled eggs and potatoes concoction, and my sweetie went for the giant cinnamon roll with a side of bacon and eggs. The only fishes on the menu are found in the smoked salmon omelet, but there are plenty of loaves, and biscuits, baked on site. There's no indication that they fed the multitudes that morning; in fact, we're guessing the rodeo and parade crowd mostly took advantage of the pancake breakfast rustled up in the Albertson's parking lot, just $5 per head.

At the Yellow Church Café the food was divine and the service angelic. Our delightful breakfast powered us the rest of the way on our trip from Seattle to Boise.