Saturday, August 30, 2014

Jackson Generals at Montgomery Biscuits (Southern League) - August 29, 2014


One of the things I'm going to try to do in the next couple of years is visit every minor league ballpark that I have yet to see (there's about 80). So when a ballpark I have yet to visit is in its final season, I'm going to try to catch a game there before it closes That is the case with Huntsville, whose Stars are supposed to move to Biloxi next year. However, the stadium there is not going to be ready by April, so it is not clear where Huntsville will play in 2015. Before this was known though, I decided to use my Labor Day weekend (I'm living in the States now, so going with that spelling) to visit Alabama as Birmingham and Montgomery were also enjoying holiday homestands. Flights to Alabama were not that convenient, but I did find a cheap alternative on Southwest to Atlanta, renting a car there, driving 150 miles into the Central Time Zone and arriving at my Montgomery hotel at noon.

Southwest Airlines

I occasionally write about flying on this blog, so it is not out of place to talk about the experience of flying Southwest, which was much better than the other airlines I have flown recently (namely US Airways, who will not be missed when they merge with American). Southwest has no assigned seats, instead you are given a boarding number based on when you check in. At the gate, you are instructed to line up in order, and you board in that order, sitting wherever you want. Although some morons still bring an overly large suitcase despite Southwest having no checked baggage fees, the overall boarding process was smooth. Onboard, they have free TV on your personal device (you have to download an app first but they email you the instructions the day before your flight). They didn't have ESPN, but the NFL Network and Fox Sports 1 were more than enough to pass the 90-minute flight. These little things make a big difference in the overall customer experience and I will certainly be considering Southwest more often when I fly.

Riverwalk Stadium

Opened in 2004 inside a renovated train station, Riverwalk Stadium is a surprisingly beautiful ballpark. After parking at any of the meters within 5 minutes (they expire at 6 so it's free), walk along Coosa Street, which is part of Montgomery's nightlife area. You might be forgiven for not noticing the park at first, as it looks like an old train station. Because it is an old train station (below). Only the sign proclaiming it as the home of the Biscuits will let you know you have made it to the right place.



Tickets are $9 for lawn seating and $11 for box seats beyond the bases, with the Super Box seats costing $13. The team draws well, so I'd recommend the box seat option instead of trying to find one after getting the cheapest ticket. There is an covered entryway that used to be part of the train station, a nice touch that allows fans to gather before having their tickets scanned.



Food here is fun. Of course, there are biscuits, with 2 fried chicken biscuits a relative bargain at $4.75. I had been dreaming of the Godfather burger since it was featured as the #10 item in MiLB.com's Food Fight. Sadly, it was no longer on offer, so I settled for a more pedestrian bacon cheese burger. As the season is ending on Monday, they had beer on sale, with cans of Bud only $2 and specialty beers for $4. The train theme continues with the Club Car Bar down the right field line, which was empty on this day but apparently attracts a lot of fans during the summer.



There is one oddity in the outfield, namely the right field fence that curves in as part of an advertising campaign. It seems dangerous to me, but didn't come into play during the game.



Trains pass just beyond left field throughout the game, a pleasant distraction. I don't know if a homer has ever hit one, it seems just out of reach.

Overall, this is the sort of place that makes minor league ball so special. The Biscuits don't overdo things like they do at Brooklyn; there are a few promotions (such as the biscuit toss where fresh biscuits are throw into the stands) but here the game is more important. Most fans stayed for the duration, mainly because there were fireworks. I saw many families with young children enjoying their Friday evening on a long weekend without a single obnoxious individual spoiling it. Any other minor league franchise should check out how things are done in Montgomery, it is almost a flawless approach to keeping the game affordable and enjoyable.

The Game

The Jackson Generals (Seattle's AA affiliate) were in town to take on Montgomery, who belong to Tampa Bay. Dylan Floro (13th round, 2012) made his 28th start for the Biscuits while Cam Hobson (11th, 2011, below) took the mound for Jackson. Both hurlers had spent the entire season in AA, with Floro displaying the better stats. Don't be misled by his 10-13 record, his 3.62 ERA, 4.61 K/BB ratio and league-leading 171.2 IP before this game tell me he is on the way up.



Floro shut down the Generals through two innings while his teammates gave him more than enough support. Luke Maile (8th, 2012) singled home two in the first (below) and then the Biscuits batted around in the 2nd, plating five on seven hits and an error, with Maile singling home another. Despite his struggles, Hobson was not removed and went on to throw seven frames.



In the top of the third, Patrick Brady (48th, 2010) reached on catcher's interference. A walk and two singles scored Brady, but the unearned run was all that Floro would yield through his own seven-inning stint. Although he needed some defensive help from right fielder Taylor Motter (17th, 2011) who robbed D.J. Peterson (12th overall, 2013, #4 below) of a home run, right next to the odd right field fence.



With the score 7-1 after 3, I expected a long evening, but Hobson settled down while Floro continued to dominate and that score ended up being the final in a game that lasted just 2:21. There were only three hits in the last five innings. Note Montgomery's #24 above, that's my new favourite player (I'm still keeping the 'u' when not referring to anything official) Willie Argo (22nd, 2012). His .598 OPS doesn't bode well for his aspirations to join the Rays, but with that name, he should be in baseball (or Canadian football or Greek basketball) somewhere.



Player to Watch

Motter not only had the highlight catch but went 2-4 with a double and 2 runs scored. I am sure D.J. Peterson will be on the Mariners soon enough (he has over 100 RBIs this season) but he went 0-4 tonight so the award goes to Motter.

Notes

This was my first game in Alabama and my 100th affiliated minor league ballpark. We sports travellers love to count things. For most, it is games seen, but for me it is venues (now up to 497), countries (20), and now states (44) in which I've seen a game. I'll never see every venue in the world nor every country, but I can see a game in every state, with just 6 to go (Alaska, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Wyoming). All but two of those can be done with minor league baseball, but Alaska and North Dakota will require a special trip sometime in 2015.

The Jamestown Jammers are another team that is moving after 2014, but that was announced just a few days ago, shocking the few fans the team had. I had never been there either, so a bit disappointed that I'll never get to see that ballpark, but it just means another new destination in the NY-Penn League next year, Morgantown, where I saw the Mountaineers play basketball four years ago.

Kevin Seitzer's son Cameron (11th, 2011) plays first for Montgomery. He finished 1-4 with a double and is hitting .242 on the season. Guess he and Dad will be having some talks over the winter.



Montgomery is Alabama's capital city. It is one of those tricky capitals as most people think it is  Birmingham, but nope, the capitol building is just a few blocks away from the stadium and a good stopping point before the game.

Next Up

Speaking of Birmingham, I'm going there tomorrow. My friend Meg alerted me to the fact that UAB would be at home Saturday morning, so I decided to see that instead of another game at Montgomery. Then the Birmingham Barons play in the evening so it will be a 2-sports doubleheader. Check back for recaps.


Best,

Sean

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

C.D. FAS 0 at New York Red Bulls 2 (CONCACAF Champions League) - August 26, 2014


My office is located in Jersey City, just three stops on the PATH train from Harrison, home of the New York Red Bulls. Last season, the Red Bulls won the MLS Supporters Shield (most points in the regular season) thus granting them entry into this year's CONCACAF Champions League (CCL). Many fans are indifferent towards these non-league competitions, but I always enjoy them, because you can see teams from other nations. The lack of interest from the average fan means that tickets on the secondary market are very cheap, and with the game being held on Tuesday, it was convenient to stop by Red Bull Arena after work.



The CCL consists of 24 teams: 9 from North America (4 each from Mexico and the USA and one from Canada), 12 from Central America and 3 from the Caribbean. Teams are selected based on their performance in the previous season or in the domestic cup competition. Eight groups of three are drawn and the teams play home-and-away contests against the other two clubs between August and October, with the group winners moving on to the knockout stage. The Red Bulls were drawn into Group 3 with Montreal Impact (who won the Canadian Championship back in June) and Club Deportivo FAS from El Salvador. Montreal and FAS had already played twice with the Impact winning both games by a goal, so the Red Bulls needed to win over FAS to keep pace.



I arrived about 30 minutes before game time and stopped by Five Guys next to Harrison Station, which is the recommended dinner spot for any Red Bulls game - cheaper and better than what you will get inside the stadium. As you can see, there wasn't much of a crowd to worry about when I did arrive; I was able to sit wherever I wanted and move around freely during the game.

The Red Bulls dominated proceedings, scoring just 11 minutes in when Saer Sene (who had been traded from New England just two weeks prior) was left alone in the box to receive a headed pass from Tim Cahill. Sene (below) slotted home easily and the Red Bulls had all they would need.



That didn't stop them from trying to add to their score, but their finishing was terrible. Cahill missed about 3 glorious chances such as the one below that was blocked by a defender, while Sene bumbled away two open nets.



It didn't matter as FAS were no match of New York, perhaps getting a single chance over the 90 minutes. Midway through the second half, the Red Bulls Lloyd Sam took a pass from Péguy Luyindula and raced in on the right, doubling the score with a hard shot that went in off the keeper's gloves. The rest of the match was pretty forgettable as New York prevented FAS from attacking for the last 15 minutes to clinch the 2-0 win.

Overall, this was a pretty fun evening. The game was cheap, entertaining, and those fans who were there truly enjoyed themselves, even those supporting FAS, most of whom seemed to be local to NYC and happy to have the chance to see their team live. Sporting KC, D.C. United, and Portland are also in the CCL this season, so if you happen to live in one of those cities, consider a game in this league for a chance to see a club you've never seen before.

Notes

FAS is the first club to be eliminated from the Champions League after 3 straight losses.

Montreal visits the Red Bulls on October 22nd to end the group stage in what should be the deciding match, and I already have my ticket for that, thanks to a great StubHub campaign. Buy two tickets to any Red Bulls home game (or FC Toronto or Portland Timbers) and receive $25 towards a future MLS purchase. I got two tickets for $22 for this game, sold one for $10, and used the $25 gift to buy a good seat for the Montreal match. Two games for $12 - not bad in my books.

Next Up

Off to Alabama this weekend, starting in Montgomery on Friday evening for some Biscuit baseball. Check back regularly as I begin an exciting fall of Sports Road Tripping.

Best,

Sean

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Dominican Republic 62 vs USA 105 (FIBA Exhibition Basketball) - August 20, 2014


It has been a quiet month on the blog as I started a new job and released my book, Ultimate Football Road Trip. It went viral last week as my comment about Bills fans being the drunkest in the league was picked up by sites around the country. I did about 20 radio interviews and was featured on a couple of national NFL pages, but in the end, the attention didn't lead to a spot on the New York Times best sellers list. Yet. If you haven't bought the book, now is the best time to do so as the NFL season is just two weeks away. There is nothing like it out there, a perfect NFL travel guide for the 2014 season.

Anyway, with my new job being in Jersey City, I don't have time or energy to head out to 3½ hour baseball games in the evening, so I hadn't seen a sporting event since the Champions Cup match between Liverpool and Manchester City three weeks prior. Fortunately, the New York area has a few events other than MLB teams playing out the string, including USA Basketball making a couple of appearances at MSG as they prepare for the FIBA World Cup, taking place in Spain from August 30 - September 14.



The first game saw the USA take on the Dominican Republic, who are in the same group at the World Cup. As MSG is midway between the office and home, it makes a convenient spot to stop by on a weeknight. My friend Eddie joined me, and while I was waiting for him, Isaiah Austin entered the lobby. The crowd immediately congregated around him, taking pictures, some of them quite awestruck. If you didn't hear the story, Austin played two years at Baylor before declaring for the 2014 NBA draft. As part of draft process, all prospects are given medical exams, and it turned out that the 7'1" Austin has Marfan Syndrome, which precluded any chance at a career in professional basketball. The league invited him up on stage during the draft and has promised him a job after he graduates. Still, you would think that having your life's dream derailed at the last minute would leave one bitter, but Austin has shown incredible maturity. He graciously took pictures with dozens of fans, shaking hands and chatting with anyone who spoke to him. It took him about 20 minutes to make his way through the lobby, stopping every few seconds for another photo.



After Austin finally made his way into the arena and the crowd settled down, Eddie appeared. We went to the ticket window and found that there were still cheap ($35) seats available low in the 200 level. Good enough. I wasn't expecting a competitive match, but wanted to see the US team, even though it is missing a number of their stars after the Kevins (Durant and Love) withdrew and Paul George suffered that gruesome injury.



You might consider it a third-tier All-Star team considering Mason Plumlee and Kenneth Faried are on the roster, but not all the players are at that level; James Harden (above) and Raptor DeMar DeRozan (below) are two of the stars on the squad, coached by Mike Krzyzewski of Duke.



The game was wonderful to watch because there were so few stoppages. There was only 1 media timeout per quarter, so the entire 40 minutes of action took just over 90 minutes of real time. NBA games last nearly an hour longer with just 8 additional minutes of game time.



There was never any doubt the USA would win, but they still played lights out, shooting 58% from the field and 44% from three point land while suffocating the DR on defense. They also tried a few crowd pleasing alley-oops, such as Andre Drummond with the one-hander above. Drummond scored 12 points in 16 minutes and played himself onto the final roster, which was announced a couple of days later. The final score was 105-62, with six US players in double figures (but none scoring over 13 points) in a well-balanced attack. It was a lot of fun to see basketball as it should be played, without all the stupid fouls and stoppages. Sure it was a blowout, but I enjoyed watching the talent on display. Well worth the investment, and it will interesting to see if the US can compete with the top nations such as Argentina and Spain next month.



Notes

The US won each 10-minute quarter as follows: 28-17, 25-14, 27-14, 25-17. A consistent, dominating performance.

The US played Puerto Rico on Friday, winning 112-86. They certainly seem ready for the World Cup.

During the game, the fans showed their love for ex-Jet Jerricho Cotchery, yelling out "Jerricho! Jerricho!" throughout the evening. In an unrelated item, Derrick Rose did not play due to soreness.

Afterwards Eddie and I stopped by the Flying Puck, a hockey-themed pub a block away from the Garden. Think I might have found my watering hole on the way home from work during the upcoming NHL season.

Next Up

I've got a good number of weekend trips planned for the rest of the year, which can be seen on the schedule. Work means no time for extended journeys, but it also means a bit of income so I can jet off every second weekend or so to exotic places such as Buffalo, Detroit, Minneapolis, Jacksonville and London for NFL games. Next weekend I'll be in Alabama for 3 minor league baseball games and NCAA football at UAB, but before that, I'll be visiting the New York Red Bulls again. They host FAS, a Salvadoran soccer team in the CONCACAF Champions League on Tuesday night. Canadian champs Montreal Impact are also in the same group, so it is an important game in that respect as well. Check back for a report later this week.

Best,

Sean

Friday, August 1, 2014

Minneapolis and Boston on Columbus Day Weekend


There are two stadiums that I must visit this NFL season: Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, the new home of the 49ers, and TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, where the Vikings will play for two seasons while a new facility is built on the site of the Metrodome. These are the two venues that will be used for NFL games that I have yet to visit and of course, along with keeping up my Club 122 membership,  I need to update my best-selling NFL Road Trip book (called the Ultimate Football Road Trip to avoid lawsuits) for 2015.

So I'll be going to the Bay Area in December when the 49ers host the Chargers on Saturday, December 20 and the Bills visit the Raiders on the following day. But it took me a while to figure out which Vikings game was the best option. Initially, I had settled on a late November contest against the Panthers with the Wild taking on the Blues on the Saturday night. But then my buddy Eddie suggested the weekend of October 11th, which happened to be a long weekend here in the US for Columbus Day.  The Golden Gophers host Northwestern on the Saturday while the Vikings take on the Lions on the Sunday. Of course, being a long weekend, flights are relatively expensive, so I decided to cut the cost a bit by booking a one-way ticket from Newark to Minneapolis on miles. As an aside, if you are an Aeroplan member, book tickets in other countries to avoid Air Canada's ridiculous fuel surcharges on award tickets.

The return flight was a bit trickier though, with limited choices on miles. There were some non-stop flights early in the morning but the more I looked into it, I realized that my options to get back to New York were limited and expensive. Then I had a "eureka" moment. Columbus Day means afternoon sporting events. A quick check of the NHL schedule showed the Bruins hosting the Avalanche in a 1 pm start. It didn't take me long to find a flight from MSP to BOS in the morning and then another flight from BOS to EWR in the evening, all for a lot less than a direct flight. It is only 45 minutes from the airport to TD Garden by transit, so not a problem getting to the game and then back to the airport. The only problem is I will have to travel very light to get into the rink. It will be a crazy weekend, but one I am looking forward to very much. As always, updates and recaps will be posted here.

Best,

Sean

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Liverpool 2 (3) vs Manchester City 2 (1) (Champions Cup) - July 30, 2014


In the six weeks or so between the end of the World Cup and the start of another long soccer season in Europe, you would think players might be given some time off. Nope, not when there is money to be made. All but one Premier League team is somewhere in the world playing a series of friendlies; Tottenham Hotspur played Toronto FC just last week and that game, nor any friendly for that matter, did not win the affection of the Globe and Mail.



With MLS desperate to make further inroads into the American sports market and European sides hoping to increase merchandise sales, these affairs will continue regardless of media disdain. One of the more marketable events is the Champions Cup, a collection of eight top European clubs playing in two groups of four across the USA. Three teams from England (Manchester United, Manchester City, and Liverpool), three from Italy (Inter, AC Milan, and AS Roma) along with Real Madrid and Olympiakos make this a very intriguing tournament. The first game was played at BMO Field where Olympiakos shut out AC Milan 3-0, with 11 of the other 12 matches scheduled for large football stadiums in major metropolitan areas stateside. New York was the odd man out in that regard, with the match here held at Yankee Stadium. It was one of the better matchups though, featuring the EPL's top two clubs from last season in champions Manchester City and runners-up Liverpool. A friend of mine is a Liverpool supporter and he was quite excited to join me for the match. He had bought seats just behind one of the goals, and unfortunately for him, it was in the Man City cheering section (below).



From here it was difficult to get full shot of the pitch, so I used the stadium's express elevators to go to the 400 level to take the picture below. The infield dirt was partially covered by temporary grass that looked like it could prove problematic for the players.



In the end, there were no injuries as neither team played particularly aggressively, hoping to avoid any serious knocks just a couple of weeks before the EPL season gets underway. Several members of England's winless world cup squad were on hand, including Man City keeper Joe Hart, who played the second half.



Friendlies are always a bit less intense than a real match, but both teams played with some energy early on, with City dominating for the most part. Midway through, they put the ball in the net but it was correctly ruled offside, leading some of the idiot pretenders in front of me to threaten the "ref" who made the call, including one saying he would need to be escorted out of the stadium. Really? It's a meaningless friendly, and it is the linesman who makes the call, not the referee.



Anyway, the second half began with Liverpool pressuring Hart and the City defense in a vain attempt to break the scoreless game. In the 53rd minute, Man City's Jesus Navas took the ball down the right flank, sending it into the box where it embarrassingly snuck through Steven Gerrard's legs, falling to Steven Jovetic (#35 above) who easily tapped home to open the scoring. Six minutes later, Liverpool responded with a three-way passing play capped by Jordan Henderson beating Hart to tie the game. Jovetic added his second just 8 minutes after that, taking a pass from Nigerian youngster Kelechi Iheanacho and somehow finding the corner of the goal despite whiffing on the kick.

City looked set to take the match, but a late goal from Raheem Sterling, who received a one-touch volley from Lucas and broke into the box, sending the ball past a helpless Hart. Just before the final whistle, Sterling scored another beauty, but it was incorrectly ruled offside, sending the match to penalties.



The net at which the kicks were being taken was at the far end of the stadium, so pictures were tough to get. Simon Mignolet took over for Liverpool and saved both YaYa Toure and Navas (below) after Aleksandar Kolarov missed high to start the proceedings. Sturridge also missed the opener for the Reds, but Emre Can, Henderson, and Lucas all scored to give Liverpool the extra point in the standings (in the Champions Cup, winners in regulation receive 3 points as usual, while those in penalties take 2 while the loser gets 1).



This was a pretty entertaining evening for the nearly 50,000 fans in attendance, and certainly a lot more fun than any of the Yankee games I've seen this season.  Next year, NYCFC, a new MLS club, will start playing at Yankee Stadium regularly and it will be interesting to see if they can draw a similar crowd in the early going.

Notes

The Champions Cup concluded with the championship match at Sun Life Stadium in Miami, where Manchester United beat Liverpool 3-1.

Best,

Sean

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sweet Home Alabama Trip!


The Huntsville Stars have played in the Southern League since 1985, but they are not going to be celebrating a happy 30th anniversary next year. The franchise has been sold to a group of investors who will move it to Biloxi, Mississippi. Originally scheduled to reach Biloxi in time to open the 2015 season, the team may remain in Huntsville or play a total road schedule as the new Biloxi stadium has yet to begin construction. Either way, baseball's days in Huntsville are coming to an end.

When I used to live in Japan, these are the sort of events I would watch wistfully from afar; it was never feasible to race across the world to see a soon-to-be-abandoned minor league ballpark. Now that I am living in the US though, and working as well, I can take a trip to witness what might be the final weekend in Huntsville Stars history.

With my new job, an extended trip isn't possible, so I am limited to the Labor Day weekend, when two other teams in the league are home in Montgomery and Birmingham. I found a remarkably cheap sale on flights to Atlanta through Southwest Airlines (never flown them before either), so I'm heading to the Deep South to close out the minor league baseball season.

The full schedule is short and sweet, but that suits Alabama quite nicely, at least according to Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Fri Aug 29 Jackson Generals at Montgomery Biscuits 7:05
Sat Aug 30 Jackson Generals at Montgomery Biscuits 2:05
Sat Aug 30 Troy Trojans at UAB Blazers 11:00
Sat Aug 30 Pensacola Blue Wahoos at Birmingham Barons 6:30
Sun Aug 31 Mississippi Braves at Huntsville Stars 4:00

Alabama is also one of the states in which I have yet to see a sporting event. After this trip, only 6 will remain (Alaska, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Wyoming). I plan to visit all those states in 2015 to complete yet another meaningless quest. As always, check back regularly for updates.

Best,

Sean