Day One 2019: Miller Park

 

Back at it.

This year’s agenda takes me to Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Boston, New York (Mets, Yankees, Long Island Ducks), Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Chicago (for the White Sox). For whatever reason the first couple of days each year seem to be the most brutal for travel: I have been up at about 4:00 in the morning each of the last two days, and have a 6:15 Greyhound bus to catch tomorrow morning. So I’ve seen two parks already, but am just now getting around to writing about the first one.

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Miller Park in Milwaukee is awesome; underrated, in my opinion. I mean, it was a fantastic experience, almost from start to finish, perhaps save the bus trip to the ballpark, and even that was interesting. I had a chance to get together with a former student of mine, John Ehlke, who graduated back in 2003 and now lives about 30 minutes outside of Milwaukee with his lovely family. John is honestly one of the world’s best people, and I don’t just say that because I taught him everything he knows. I’m not sure that I actually taught him much, but he’s turned out great; it’s always a source of pride to see your teenage students turn into amazingly accomplished adults.

I met up with John in the Robin Yount parking lot, but it took some adventuring to get there. The flight in, with a stop in Denver, was smooth as could be. But once I arrived in Milwaukee, my insistence on taking public transportation whenever humanly possible made for an interesting, circuitous trip. I found the airport bus stop easily enough, but the first driver who came by told me I should buy a transit card instead of feeding dollar bills into the machine, which I was fully prepared to do. So I got off that first bus and followed his directions to a ticket kiosk, paid my six bucks for an all-day card, and headed back to the stop.

The next driver politely explained that her bus was going in the wrong direction and that I should wait for another.

The third driver told me that he’d get me where I wanted to go “eventually,” but that first he had to make a few stops to the south before heading north.

“But eventually I’ll get there?” I asked, perched half-on and half-off the bus.

“Yes?” he replied, in a way-more-questioning voice than he should have used at that point. He should have just directed me to wait for the next one. His indecision, coupled with my own confusion, led me to essentially give up and get on the bus, regardless of where it was going. It was not the right call.

I watched the blue dot on the map on my phone as it headed in the opposite direction. “That’s OK,” I thought. “I already knew this was going to happen. It’ll work out fine.” It did, after a while. But first we had to make a stop at the local and disturbingly deserted technical college, where the driver got off the bus and left me to guard it, I assume, for about 10 minutes. After about five I started to become convinced that he wasn’t coming back and that I was in a horror movie. The air on the bus grew hotter. It closed in on me. Sweat rolled down the back of my neck. I scanned the empty prison-like buildings on either side of me with increasing dread. No one knew I was here, did they? The bus driver had been abducted by brain-probing aliens or a gang of laid-off adjunct professors. This was the end.

But then the driver came back. With a candy bar. And we were back on our way.

Of course, we were back on our way to the Milwaukee airport, where we drove right past my original boarding location. Look, kids! Big Ben! Parliament! Mitchell Airport!

Finally, we were pointed in the right direction. And while it wasn’t the most scenic of drives, I did eventually reach the connecting point for the Blue Line, which led me to a location near the Veterans’ Hospital, about a 15-minute walk from the Stadium.

It’s interesting: I’ve been thinking a lot about the distinction that people make between a ‘ballpark,’ which is nearly always specific to baseball, and a ‘stadium,’ which is at least anecdotally larger and often serves other purposes. I’ve chatted with a few people who wonder why my travels don’t use the #TenBallparksTenDays hashtag, instead of #TenStadiumsTenDays. The answer is simply that the first was already being used by someone else, or perhaps multiple someone-elses, and I wanted something that was specific to my trip, so I chose ‘stadium’ instead of ‘ballpark,’ even though I generally use them interchangeably. After all, ‘Yankee Stadium,’ and ‘Dodger Stadium’ are obviously referred to as ‘stadiums,’ even though they’re pretty much universally regarded as the exclusive homes of the Yankees and Dodgers baseball team.

 

Anyway, I say all that because I was a bit surprised to see that the signs leading you down the quaint, bucolic path to Miller Park point the direction to the ‘stadium’ and not to the ‘ballpark.’

But Miller Park DOES have a stadium feel to it; the outside seems much larger than, say, Wrigley Field or Comerica Park. There’s a ton of brick and the roof had been closed due to the threat of storms that never actually appeared. To me, it felt most similar to Ford Field in Detroit, the home of the Lions’ football team.

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And it’s surrounded by MILES of parking lots, not only because of the aforementioned difficulties in using public transportation to access the area (it’s quite possible I was the ONLY person who took the city bus system to get to the game), but also because Brewers’ fans LOVE tailgating. Miller Park is perfectly-suited to having a beer (or six) and a brat before the game starts, more than any other ballpark I’ve visited. The various lots were filled with happy tailgaters grilling and corn-holing away their Wednesday afternoons until gametime.A friend on Twitter had mentioned that one of the parking lots contained a plaque commemorating Hank Aaron’s 755th career home run, so with about two hours before the game I set out in search of it. The first people I asked, a friendly couple swigging Coronas and waiting for the gates to open, had no idea what I was talking about. But a nearby teenager overheard our conversation and was able to point me in the right direction. A little league diamond is now where County Stadium once stood, and the ball landed essentially straight out to left field of that current configuration. Aaron blasted the ball out immediately after a home run by George Scott, three weeks before I turned two years old. It was caught by a groundskeeper, Richard Arndt, who likely knew it was a cool keepsake but would have had no idea that it was to be the final round-tripper in Aaron’s career, this being only the middle of July. Arndt sold the ball a couple of decades later for $650,000. fullsizeoutput_73c7The plaque is, of course, smack in the middle of Brewers’ tailgaters, since every parking lot nearby is filled with Brewers’ tailgaters. Once I got relatively close, I still had to ask another guy if he could help, and he did, leading me to the plaque a few rows away. He even offered to snap a couple of photos of me when we got there, which are pretty hard to take since the plaque is a bit faded. The tailgate next door, luckily for me, was hosted by two retired friends named Bruce and Dave, who needed approximately 26 seconds before offering me a Miller (I could choose between the regular, the Lite, and the MGD!). Dave is a retired schoolteacher who spent much of his career discussing middle school math with inner city Milwaukee kids. Bruce was an electrician. Both were as friendly as could be. We sipped our Millers and chatted about my trip and about the state of education; Dave’s brother-in-law also teaches journalism, at the college level, and had been at Oregon and Texas, among other places.     

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About the time I was ready to bid farewell to Bruce and Dave, my fried John called me to let me know he was in a lot on the other side of the stadium. I slowly made my way toward him, stopping to take pics of some of the Brewers Hall of Fame plaques. 

 

It was really cool to spend the game with John, chatting about his work as a photojournalist for the West Bend Times, where he had shot Brewers games for the last eight years before moving on to a videographer position with the city of West Bend; the new job helps him stay closer to home and his wife Melissa, a local DJ, and their three-year-old daughter Molly. His previous photographer job often had him driving an easy hundred-miles-a-day, which I discovered in conversation after looking at his car’s odometer. It reads 325,000 miles. 

John and I wandered the stadium for a while, checking out the autographed-baseball wall and the Bud Selig Experience, which is just like the Jimi Hendrix Experience only starring a nerdy old white guy who looks like an accountant and loves Milwaukee. I was actually mostly unaware of how revered Selig is in this town; he rescued the Brewers more than once, assuming the documentary we watched is accurate, which I think it is. At one point, one of the three screens retracts to show us a hologram image of Selig in his pretend office, seemingly hard at work while the film about his life is playing. It’s pretty cool, honestly, and looks real enough that for a moment I really DID think that I was in Milwaukee on the day that Bud decided to get a little paperwork done. 

We were in Wisconsin, so the two must-have food items were brats and cheese curds. The brat, which I ordered covered in saurkraut and whatever the ‘Stadium Sauce’ is (it looks like ketchup but I don’t think it’s ketchup. That would be a weird secret sauce.) was spectacular. Granted, I hadn’t eaten since the prior day’s dinner at home in California, unless you count a bag of combos I bought at the Denver airport, but it was seriously the best bratwurst I’ve ever had. I ate it so quickly after ordering it that I considered just staying in line for a minute to get another one, but thought better of it. John, meanwhile, found the cheese curds in a different line and we met back at our seats. The cheese curds were good, if a little salty for my taste. “You know they’re good cheese curds if they squeak as you bite them,” John told me. This might be a Wisconsin maxim, but I’m not sure I want my food to squeak. Anyway, these, along with the bag of peanuts he brought in, did the trick as my one meal of the day. 

Once we settled in, John gave me some great insight into his work as a sports photographer, a job he misses at least a little at times, especially while sitting in the stands instead of the first-base photographers’ well. John was a photographer on my yearbook staff in 2003, and one of the hardest-working students I’ve ever known. It shows in his work today. 

“I never had the best equipment,” he told me. “But I knew I was gonna work harder than everyone else. I’d never get outworked. It can go away really quickly so you might as well make the most of your opportunities.”

Check out the full interview with John here. Especially if you know John. Or are a publications’ adviser. Or want to know more about what it’s like to be a sports photographer. Or you just like to provide me with more hits on Soundcloud. 

We talked about how he started gradually steering toward sports photography.

“Back in yearbook days, one summer I was down in Florida with my grandparents at Tigers spring training and took a bunch of shots,” he said. “I took them back to the darkroom and developed them and my yearbook adviser (editor’s note: OMG that’s me!) told me they were really good, and I should do more of this.”

Once he hit college at Central Michigan University, he continued down that path, which led eventually to shooting at the Oakland Press and Flint Journal, the Detroit Lions’ youth football camps, and then the job at the West Bend Times, where he made an immediate impression. A good impression, and then a bit of a bad impression, and then an overwhelmingly great impression. The Brewers’ gig came about because of his doggedness and willingness to beg forgiveness instead of asking permission. 

“I wasn’t supposed to cover the Brewers,” he told me. “I got hired in January and opening day was in April. I knew that our sports department was covering it and it was a Monday, my day off, so I thought ‘I’m gonna go.’ I contacted the Brewers but didn’t tell anybody from work because I wanted to make sure I was credentialed in first before I told anybody. They said OK, but told me I should probably contact my supervisor first. And at the time I was the only photographer on staff so I said ‘I am the supervisor. I say I can go.’ So they said fine.” 

John mentioned it to his sports editor, who was planning on going out to write a story about opening day. He was all for it, since he knew it would provide some great images to accompany the story he’d be putting together. 

His managing editor felt…well…differently. 

“She was not as happy because I had overstepped my bounds,” he said. “She told me that if we were going to put in for credentials we needed to do it right. But then she saw the photos and said ‘OK, you can go again.’

The trouble he stirred up provided the basis for a good life lesson: if you can provide a service that nobody else can, you’ve got a leg up on your competition. 

” I saw that we needed to provide something that OUR readers want to see,” he explained. “I’ve made it a point to do that: if I wanted to keep doing this I needed to find local stories that were important to our readers. I’d wander around the stadium just trying to find stories. Some days it was harder than others but it was something that I took pride in because I didn’t think anyone else was doing it.”

He’s seen his share of cool Brewers’ history over the last eight years. One of the moments he remembers vividly is getting the shot when Jonathan Lucroy hit an opening day walk off homer to beat the Rockies. 

“I got a really nice image of it,” he said. “It’s one of those that I call a ‘forever’ image; one I can look back on and just know forever that it’s a really good photo.” 

 

 

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The Brewers’ Jonathan Lucroy celebrates with teammates after his walk-off homer beats the Colorado Rockies on Opening Day, 2013. Photo courtesy of John Ehlke

Part of the allure of shooting baseball photos is what you’d expect from any baseball fan on the planet: just being on the field. John remembers getting shots of Prince Fielder as he took batting practice. 

“As a fan it’s easy to get drawn into that sort of stuff,” he said. “Watching home runs from behind plate. This is work? This is WORK?!? I’m on the field and this is crazy. It’s surreal.”

 

 

 

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