Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Baseball in Kansas City

Growing up in south central Iowa, one team learned to dislike was the Kansas City Royals. Many in my home town cheered on George Brett, Willie Wilson, U.L. Washington, Steve Balboa and others wearing the Royal blue uniforms. The big rivalry at the end of the year was the Yankees and Royals and Kansas City was the toast of the American League West for many years. I remember the World Series of 1980 as well as the controversial 1985 I-70 Championship Series and many bragged about how much better they were than my favorite team, the Chicago Cubs. So I grew to hate Kansas City for many years.

But the Royals are far from the successful days of the 1980s. The most famous Royal of the past seven years is pitcher Zach Greinke, but the Royals traded him to the Milwaukee Brewers in the off-season. Today they have some promising talent, but the record is far from contending in the AL Central.
The race between Ketchup, Mustard and Relish.
Earlier in the decade, the Royals spent much money making Kauffman Stadium much more fan-friendly and enticing to the casual fan. My last trip to a Royal home game was in 2000 against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The crowd was sparse and those names I was looking for narrowed to one, in a visiting uniform, with the name Canseco on the back. But in 2011 the Stadium is still as well-manicured and clean as I remember.
But although the original fountains remain there are reasons the Royals don't compete at a Championship level. I know I'm not a fan, and this may sound like a shot to the franchise that struggled recently, but there are ways the Royals can be fan-friendlier than they are today.

Long lines were found at the concession stands. As I stood there waiting to buy one pretzel, I watched a multitude of concession workers slowly move around their area, and being in no rush to settle the change. After standing and watching a half inning on the monitors, while moving only a spot or two, I gave up.

Leaving the stadium was also a mess. It was fireworks night with the Cubs in town, meaning many people leaving at one time. As the mass of humanity twisted around the concourse ramps, a back up resulted when the Royals staff didn't open all of the gates. I stood in disbelief waiting to leave while looking at locked gates while the rest of use filtered through four or five unlocked, single-file gates. And the same could be said for the cars exiting the parking lots. For an area with 81 home games as well as an entire football season, I couldn't believe the waiting that resulted in trying to leave the Truman Sports Complex.
The Royals are a long way from the days of White, Howser and Brett.

But there are still many good things the Royals do, and reasons why they still attract their fans. The renovations have brought a congregating area in the outfield, a Video Board among the best in professional athletics and in-game entertainment that allow fans to have a good time. And every Friday is a solid fireworks show, sponsored by Hy-Vee. My son and I had a good time at the game, on a perfect night for baseball. It is a place I would bring him back to as it is easy to park, and tickets are plentiful at a reasonable price. But I still couldn't cheer for the home team

Monday, June 27, 2011

Big Ten Memories - Illinois

Illinois has never been one of my favorite places to visit in the Big Ten. The stadium was older, I didn't like the fight song, and the PA announcer had annoying ways to fire up the crowd. We would be subjected to the phrases of "It's Special Teams Time" (something we constantly heard in 1994) or "3rd Down for the Illini." However in 2008, our most recent trip, we saw a renovated stadium and some of the amenities had improved. But the fight song hadn't changed. In fact, one of the greatest traditions in college football, Chief Illiniwek was no longer around, and the PA announcer continued to be annoying.

Every once in a while there is that one memorable game which identifies a season. In 1990 which one of those memorable games could be debated, but there was no more of a dominating Hawkeye performance that year than a match-up between #13 Iowa and #5 Illinois. The game was broadcast on ABC featuring one of the best teams in Illinois Football History. And on that day, we were reminded of how good Illinois football had been as they had been celebrating their 100 years of Illini Football.

Iowa had played very well on the road, with wins at Michigan and Michigan State earlier in the year, but few knew if the Hawkeyes could beat the mighty Illini on their home turf.

There was an excitement throughout the Iowa camp the week leading up to the game. Tickets were hard to come by, and many of my college friends were looking forward to an Iowa win as they had enough of the Illinois-based Iowa student body. There was a buzz the night before at the team hotel. The buzz was more of a confidence than excitement. Local stations from throughout the state had travelled to southern Illinois to cover this important contest.

In one of the more dominating performances I've been associated with on such a high profile stage, the Hawkeyes dominated an Illinois team that had little fight in them by half time. Nick Bell ran over and through them, making him a presence on the national stage. And Iowa football coach, Hayden Fry reached into his bag of tricks, faking a field goal and scoring a touchdown, another dagger to the Illini team. The celebration lasted late into the dark November night.

Another reason I disliked the trip to Memorial Stadium was the end zone shooting location. Beginning in 1990, the only place for us to shoot was on a scaffolding in the south end zone. Over time the platform was raised to many different levels. But in 2004 the scaffolding was one of the scariest experiences I had ever encountered. Winds had gusted throughout the game, and there was no protection from those winds. It had blown so hard that at halftime I had to take my camera off its tripod in order to collapse it. Otherwise I was afraid it would blow off. Throughout the game I had to hold onto a crossbar of the scaffold to ensure I wasn't going anywhere.

Fortunately it wasn't cold in 2004. It was in 1996 I realized how brutal it can get in that remote shooting spot. The wind chill dropped to 8 degrees above zero. I shared that end zone location with a student of the Illini Video Department. Just before half, his boss brought him two hot chocolates, myself had none. There were times it was cold to shoot the end zone, but I can't remember one much colder than that day.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Rays T Ball v Brewers

The T Ball season is off and running. The weather was more like April, but the City of Coralville decided to begin their season in the middle of June. Our first game as the Coralville Rays was against the crosstown Brewers.

This year's team has many hold overs from ones I've managed in the past. The twins, blonde bomber as well as my son return. It is nice to have this core as they are great kids with terrific parents.

Although tonight's game was our first, the fielding and hitting was very good. This year we are in the advanced T Ball league, or the "Majors." It is a coach-pitch league and outs are kept. But teams bat all of their team mebers, but if there are three outs in the same inning the side is retired. I'm not sure we'll be seeing that for a few games.

Games are played on Thursdays at the Coralville Youth Sports Park.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Big Ten Memories - Northwestern

For many years I shot the end zone camera for the Iowa Football team. That provided many different spots - inside scoreboards, within aisles, in little sheds - but no place provided so many different, and unique spots over the years than Northwestern.

My first trip in 1989 the end zone shot was something new to conference members. Some schools hadn't put much thought into a suitable location, but it didn't appear to be too tough for the Wildcats to come up with something. Attendance was low, and we could set up anywhere in the south end zone stands as there were few fans in the area. The angle wasn't great, but it was the best we could do.

Within the next few years Northwestern gave us the roof of Welsh-Ryan Arena, where they played basketball, yet we were quite a distance from the stadium, it was stable. But in 1995 we had to battle the zero degree temperatures and howling winds as a snowstorm hit the morning of the game, giving way to sunny, clear and cold skies.

As Northwestern improved their facilities, the view from the basketball arena became blocked and a scaffolding was placed upon their locker rooms in the north end zone. The scaffold wasn't much, and we questioned the safety of it. But one thing it didn't do is protect me from the rain.

Prior to a game in the late 90s, along with the Iowa Football equipment staff, we decided to build a hut using a tarp. Rain had been in the forecast, and the equipment staff knew of my frustration with the lack of a secure shooting location. So there I stood, inside a blue tarp, attached to the scaffold with zip ties while the Northwestern student was being rained on. It was one of the last games of the year at Ryan Field, and I was told that impromptu hut is still sitting in a facility closet on the Evanston campus.

Then a few years later, it was a sunny day on Chicago's North Side. And a little tradition that former Iowa placekicker and I had started took on a different light on this Saturday afternoon. Nate Kaeding had used me as his focal point to aim at when kicking field goals and extra points. Every game in his career he would look for me in the end zone and I would give him a thumbs up. At Ryan Field, the scaffolding was located within 20 yards off the back line of the end zone, and field goals kicked in either pre-game or during the game would land near our spot. But on this day I could tell Nate had a different goal in mine. Not only was he aiming to make all of his attempts, but he wanted to hit the spot that he continuously aims for.

So as he trotted onto the field for an extra point attempt I was ready to give him the thumbs up. He located me, reciprocated my thumbs up and lined up for the one point attempt. I had a feeling something would happen so after I hit the record button, I "locked" my camera down. The snap, hold, kick ... and I took one step to the side and caught his extra point attempt. Of course I had to throw the ball back, but Nate and I had accomplished something that couldn't happen just anywhere.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Big Ten Memories - Indiana

Staying in the Hoosier State takes us south to Bloomington. And a few of my better memories aren't in Memorial Stadium, rather in Assembly Hall. It was here that I saw the last game played by Chris Street prior to his tragic death. My family and I were traveling after the holiday season and wanted to experience the Bob Knight basketball atmosphere. Aside from what could be his 600th victory, it was our first time to see a game in what resembled a theatre setting, more than a basketball court.

The banners hung behind the basket, and we were one of the few wearing colors other than red and white. I opened the program to find a bank ad which placed Coach Knight at the center of the $1 bill, with the caption, "Just a thought." The band played the IU fight song, which sounded much different inside than it did out--fans and students clapped louder and sang stronger than I had ever heard in the football venue.

As in any Big Ten arenas, some of the visiting fans sit near their team's bench while others are sent to other, more remote seats. That would be us. Last row of the second deck, and we couldn't see the raised center court scoreboard. We had one fellow Iowa fan close to the aisle in charge of walking down the stairs with updates on the score and time.

But the excitement wasn't the actual game, which was a very good Big Ten basketball game won by the hometown Hoosiers, but the walk the IU coach would take from the locker room to the bench. All eyes were locked on the doorway which connected the Assembly Hall floor to its locker rooms, and the cheers got louder with every step "The General" took as he emerged from the hallway. And because of him it was an historical night as he won his 600th game, one of many.

But it is football that this column should be about and it is the hotel most teams used to stay is very memorable. A resort on a southern Bloomington's Lake Monroe was miles away from anywhere. We used to joke that you could "hear the banjos" as we drove through narrow two lane roads in our charter coach buses. Our notes from travel coordinator John Streif reminded us to "Not Feed the Bears." The first couple of years I made the trip, the resort had a special feeling as the scenery featured the changing trees, and lobby fireplace was a cozy place to be on a cool November evening. But over time the resort became a little run down, and the fall November evenings were replaced with warmer October nights. We eventually moved into hotels closer to campus, and away from the starved bears.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Iowa Shoe Guy & Iowa's '11 Uniform

Jerseys arrived today and Iowa Equipment Manager, Greg Morris gives you a closer look at these and how they differ from previous years.

Monday, June 6, 2011

BIg Ten Memories - Purdue

My summer series starts in West Lafayette, Indiana and Purdue University. We haven't visited the Boilermakers since I've started this blog, so I had to borrow a picture from "BoiledSports.com." Heading into the 2011 season, the Hawkeyes and Boilermakers will be separated into two different division of the Big Ten, but will now be treated as a natural rivalry and will play every year.

When thinking back to the times the Hawkeyes have played in Ross-Ade Stadium since my first game there in 1989 the weather comes to mind. That first trip was late in the season and the Hawkeyes were playing their way towards a winning season and maintaining the consecutive streak of bowl games. It was also the second game I travelled with the football team. Waking up that Saturday morning the sun was bright in the sky with hardly a cloud around. But walking out of the hotel off the interstate, the winds were brisk, and perhaps one of the colder days I've attended a football game up to that point.

Two years later the Hawkeyes returned and it wasn't the cold that was the story, but it was the rain. A steady drizzle fell in the morning which lasted into part of the first half. But after the intermission the rain had stopped and the Hawkeyes began to play up to their caliber. Mike Saunders was the offensive highlight for the day with a touchdown run of over 40 yards that ended with a slide out of the end zone, and Cedar Rapids Ron Gaeter was the defensive star of the game leading the team in tackles.

Ross-Ade Stadium is situated on campus. The airport, ran by the University, is less than ten minutes away, while many academic buildings and dorms are just across the street. Ross-Ade is also a cornerstone of the athletic facilities. It is also across the street from basketball's Mackey Arena. And in 1991, to escape the rainy weather, a few of us found shelter there and watched a Gene Keady practice. And in that practice it was clear who was in charge as well as the assistant allowed to shout instructions. Gene Keady was definitely in charge and the one coach allowed to give instruction was Bruce Weber, the same Bruce Weber that is currently the head coach at Illinois.

The Purdue campus area that attracts students is State Street. There there are a few establishments that cater to students, alums and fans. The most popular place is Harry's Chocolate Shop.  I can't believe there has been many other business running as long as Harry's. Although the drink of choice may have changed since 1919, the popularity hasn't.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis

Today the Big Ten Office announced a short-term plan for the playing of their championships in football as well as men's and women's basketball. Indianpolis' Lucas Oil Field and Conseco Fieldhouse were up against Chicago's Soldier Field and United Center. Conference commissioner Jim Delaney announced the football title game will take place in Lucas Oil through 2015, while the basketball tournament will rotate between Indianapolis and Chicago in that time.

As a fan of Big Ten Football, I was hoping for the outdoor venue of Soldier Field. Football is meant to be played outdoors, and the conference takes pride in its history and tradition.They are proud of the many legends that have graced the gridiron while producing many great leaders...leaders that overcome difficult situations.

But the conference chose the indoors of Indy's newest sporting venue. The conference had a concern of the biggest game being affected by wintry weather conditions and stood behind continuity of one game site. Lucas Oil also guarantees playing the title game on a good playing surface, at night while securing prime time televisions rights.

But as a staff member who has visited both facilities, the Big Ten got this one right. I like the idea of playing the title game in the third largest TV market, in a stadium honoring the soldiers of the many wars. But Soldier Field is not the facility Lucas Oil Field is. For being so new, Soldier Field provides the worst shooting locations of all NFL stadiums. Lucas Oil may have the best. Our equipment staffs don't have to worry about taking warm-weather gear for coaches, staff and players. Each team's marching bands can take the field without worrying about tearing up the playing surface. And these are just a few of the reasons.

Perhaps by 2015 Soldier Field will be awarded the bid for the title game, but a game of this stature needs to be played in a facility worthy of the Big Ten title. The NFL hasn't considered Soldier Field as a possible site for a future Super Bowl, but it has already awarded Lucas Oil its for 2012. The Big Ten didn't need to follow the NFL's lead, but it too made the right choice.

Cubs and Cardinals

 I've been fortunate to enjoy my two favorite professional sports rivalries in the last six months. In January it was the Bears and Packers for the NFC Championship. Much less was on the line on this first Saturday in June, but the Cubs and Cardinals faced each other for the second time in the 2011 MLB season.

The rivalry between these two teams is very competitive, but very friendly and good-natured among these two Midwest cities. Whether the game is in Wrigley Field or Busch Stadium, each provide a great venue to one of the best rivalries in Major League Baseball.
 With these two teams within hours of one another, there are many fans of these teams that are also friends. Much like the Bears - Packers rivalry, the Cubs and Cardinals enjoy the game together while providing good-natured ribbing among the two.
 Situated behind home plate is a statue of August A Busch Jr, the CEO of the Cardinal organization once the Brewery took control in 1953. Under Busch's lead the Cardinals won six championships.
Not only were the Cardinals hosting the Cubs, but former students of mine and I turned the afternoon game into a Bachelor Party. Although the groom married six weeks ago, we celebrated it in St. Louis, much as we did years ago for another former member of the Iowa Video Staff. On that Saturday, it was one of the last Saturday's of July and the Cubs were once again in St. Louis, but at old Busch Stadium. Temperatures reached the lower 100s that day, and when the plans were made for this outing, we were hoping for cooler June temperatures. However that wasn't the case in Missouri.
 Although the temperatures reached the middle 90s, it was still a beautiful day for baseball in Busch Stadium.
 Many baseball teams have dissolved lifelong relationships with local powerful radio stations, switching to either all-sports stations or those on the FM frequency. For the first season in seemingly forever the Minnesota Twins no longer call WCCO home. The Chicago Cubs continue to broadcast on WGN in Chicago. And the St. Louis Cardinals severed their relationship with long time flagship station KMOX within the last six years. But financial situations at that St. Louis all-sports station prompted the Cardinals to be returned home to KMOX in 2011.
 Perhaps the most popular free agent of the 2012 class, Albert Pujols is synonymous with the St. Louis Cardinals. Both sides could not come to a compromise on a contract before this year's spring training and speculation swirls with where one of the great hitters will land in 2012. Of course the Cubs have shown interest in Albert....more on that later.
 St. Louis has a proud history of great baseball players. Those Cardinals are honored on two outfield walls of new Busch Stadium. This is in Left Field, with an additional wall honoring those is higher up in Center Field.
Extra inning baseball is always a treat, especially on a beautiful summer day with two of the great rivals...unless your time is on the losing end. In the 12th inning, Cardinal soon to be free agent, Albert Pujols ended the game with two out with a solo home run. The same was said on the following game, game three of the series with Albert hitting another solo HR in the 10th.