Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Rickwood Field


Quick, name the oldest baseball park still standing in the United States! Wrigley? Nope, opened in 1914. Well, then it must be Fenway, where first pitch took place in 1912. Wrong again. The correct answer is Rickwood Field in Birmingham, which first saw action on August 18, 1910, over 104 years ago. You can read the details below:



I stopped by on Sunday before driving up to Hunstville. The park is maintained by a group called the Friends of Rickwood and is open during the week, but not on the weekend. You can arrange a private tour on the weekend as my friend Meg did the day before, but I did not have time to do so, what with seeing 5 games in 3 days. So all I have to show for my visit is a few exterior shots.



The annual Rickwood Classic, where the Birmingham Barons host an actual minor league game, will next be played on May 27th, 2015 at 12:30. I'd love to get back here for that. I guess prices are a bit more expensive than what is shown below.



The park is located in a residential area that is not the most pleasant. When I stopped by, I was the only person there, though it is not unsafe in the bright sunshine of a Birmingham afternoon. It was an eerie feeling though, to be alone with the ghosts of baseball greats.



In case you didn't read the sign above, the 1948 championship for the Black Barons including 17-year-old Willie Mays in his first professional action.



If you are down in Birmingham for the Barons or any other reason, contact the Friends of Rickwood and take a tour if you can. I'll definitely do so next time I'm in town.

Best,

Sean

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Pensacola Blue Wahoos 3 at Birmingham Barons 6 (Southern League) - August 30, 2014


After a quick stop at my hotel to freshen up after spending 4 hours in the sweatbox known as Legion Field, I made my way over to Regions Field, home of the Southern League's Barons. My friend Meg is also visiting Alabama for her own road trip, so I met up with her and we passed through a rather desolate area of Birmingham to reach the ballpark. Opened in 2013 and named after a local financial services company, Regions Field is very impressive to look at from the outside, with the giant "Birmingham" sign reminding you of where you are.




We stopped in at the Good People Brewing Company, just across 14th Street. It is the only bar in the area, and offers $5 microbrews which can also be purchased inside the stadium. They supposedly have no food, but I was given a hot dog and hamburger free of charge, which was quite appreciated as I did not eat at the football game.

As we waited for the gates to open, a rainstorm passed through the city. It stopped briefly, allowing us to cross the street and enter the park, then started again, raining heavily for about 30 minutes, which delayed the game for just over an hour. This was good news for the staff members, who were able to watch the end of the Alabama-WVU game on TV.



Our first order of business was finding the concession stand with the Steel City Burger, voted as the 13th-best food item in all of the minor leagues. Very tasty indeed and well worth the $8.



When the skies finally cleared for good, we took a quick walkaround before choosing our seats on the 3rd base side (below). As the game got underway, a group of about five well-dressed, twenty-something ladies arrived two rows in front of us, along with an industrial-sized roll of toilet paper. They began to wipe off the entire row of seats, blocking our view in the process. This didn't bother me much, but Meg was not impressed. The ladies were soon joined by a few guys, and they spent the next three innings chatting and moving about before finally leaving for an evening out. Seemed like the ballgame was just a place to meet up before moving onto the clubs. They left the huge roll toilet paper on the ground, which certainly perplexed the gentleman cleaning up after the game.



There isn't much else to write about here. My only complaint is that the P.A. announcer and M.C. are too loud, as is the music between innings. Perhaps the speakers are set for when there is a larger crowd. Regions Field is nice enough, with two huge levels of suites along first base for the hoi polloi of Birmingham, but with the weather and college football keeping fans away, I don't think I saw a game indicative of the true experience. If you go sometime, let me know how it is.

The Game

Both teams were well out of the second-half pennant race, so there weren't any underlying stories here, just a bunch of players finishing the season. Ben Lively (4th, 2013) started for the Blue Wahoos against Francellis Montas, making his AA debut.

Pensacola scored in the first when Yorman Rodriguez reached on an error, stole second, stole third, and raced home on a throwing error by catcher Kevan Smith (7th round, 2011). The Barons got that back in the third with a solo shot from Dan Black (14th, 2009, below) and Smith atoned for his error with an opposite-field homer to lead off the fourth.



Birmingham plated another in the inning to take a 3-1 lead, which Pensacola halved when Rodriguez walked in the sixth and scored on a single by Travis Mattair (2nd, 2007, by Philadelphia). In the 7th, Juan Silverio led off with a triple and scored on a single by Ryan Wright (5th, 2011) to tie the game. Kevin Vance (19th, 2011) was brought into to quell the uprising, which he did with two quick strikeouts.



It looked like extras were a possibility but in the bottom of the 8th, Smith led off with a walk and after advancing to second on a sacrifice, scored on a single by Joey DeMichele (3rd, 2012). Birmingham added two more on a double by Trayce Thompson (2nd, 2009). Vance gave up a single and walk to start the top of the 9th but settled down to strike out the next 3 batters to get the win as the Barons prevailed 6-3.



Vance struck out 7 of the 10 hitters he faced, including Kyle Waldrop (12th, 2010, flying out above) so he receives the Player to Watch award for this game.



Notes

Breaking Bat Boy McCoy was in town! Another of the touring acts that make minor league ball that much more interesting, he dances on the dugout during inning breaks and has fun with the mascot. Not quite the San Diego Chicken.



This was my 499th overall venue. Which means....

Next Up

Venue #500 is today! I'm off to Huntsville for two of the last minor league games to ever be played at Joe W. Davis Stadium. The Stars are bound for Biloxi in 2015, so the 500th visit will be bittersweet. The sweet part is that the game is now a doubleheader as Saturday's game was rained out. Check back tomorrow for a recap of the end of the 2014 Alabama trip.

Best,

Sean

Troy Trojans 10 at UAB Blazers 48 (NCAA Football) - August 30, 2014


Originally I had planned to spend Saturday watching two baseball games, one in Montgomery at 2 p.m. and one in Birmingham at 6:30. With the two cities about 100 miles apart, it would have been a tight squeeze to get both in. Then my friend Meg mentioned that the University of Alabama at Birmingham would open their 2014 season on Saturday morning at 11 am. This was a much better alternative as I would see another venue as well as make the 90-minute drive in the morning, thus ensuring I would get to the ballgame without worry. So I left my Montgomery hotel just before 9 and headed up I-65, arriving at Legion Field in plenty of time for kickoff.

Legion Field



Opened in 1927, Legion Field was once the greatest football venue in the South. It hosted the Iron Bowl from 1948-88, and both Alabama and Auburn played many other games here over the years, but as the facility deteriorated and their on-campus stadiums improved, they both stopped using it as an alternative.



Even the US Men's National Team played at Legion Field, and the highest ever attendance was for an Olympic qualifying match against Argentina in 1996, witnessed by 83,183 fans. That record can never be beaten because since then, the upper deck of the stadium was condemned and subsequently demolished, so that capacity is now just 71,594, and probably less than that with tarps over the end zone seats.



These days, the stadium is used only by the UAB Blazers, who draw less than 30,000, which makes parking a lot easier at least. Tickets are only $15, which makes this one of the cheapest FBS destinations. But the stadium is clearly nearing its end of life and is no longer entirely maintained, making it is both fascinating and depressing to watch a game here.



It is huge but has few box seats, and the thousands of metal bleachers reflect the relentless sun to make sitting there on a hot afternoon a trying experience. Smart fans move right to the top on the UAB side, where several rows are in the shade, as you can see above.

There are some old-style concessions which are reasonably priced, with the recommended spot the BBQ stand in one end zone, from where you can stand and get some good views of the action at field level.



Beyond that though, it is tough to spend the entire 4 hours here for a college football game. I walked around quite a bit, but there is little to see. The scoreboards are ancient and so there is nothing to do during the interminable TV timeouts. I rarely advise that you avoid a stadium, but this is one that a stadium traveller need not add to the bucket list. See a game in Auburn or Tuscaloosa instead.

The Game

Troy is based in Montgomery and the two teams are apparently fierce interstate rivals. Not quite like Alabama and Auburn, but still enough to have fans sitting on separate sides of the stadium. Troy came in as 2.5-point favourites and scored on a one-yard run by Jordan Chunn (#36 below) on their first drive, but that was about it.



UAB scored on their first drive behind QB Cody Clements (#5), a JC transfer from Cerritos College, who finished 13/19 for 152 yards, with 2 passing TDs and another on the ground.



After Troy fumbled on their next possession, UAB spent the rest of the afternoon running rampant over the Trojans, scoring on 8 of 12 possessions (6 touchdowns) to win easily 48-10. The star was Jordan Howard (#7 below) who ran for 179 yards and 2 touchdowns, including a 55-yarder that made the score 31-10 and essentially ended the game.



The other player to note is Blazer kicker Ty Long, whose kickoffs routinely went into the end zone, and who made both his field goals. He is the mostly likely player from both teams to make the NFL next season.



That's the final score with 5:52 to go. I left at this time as I had seen more than enough of this blowout.



Notes



The game took about 3½ hours, a function of the different pace of college football where teams run plays with 20 seconds left on the play clock, plus the incredible length and number of TV timeouts. After two hours, only five minutes had passed in the third quarter. I understand the need to extend the big games to nearly four hours to maximize advertising revenue, but to have this game prolonged seemed just mean. Especially to those poor Troy fans who had no shade on their side of the stadium (above).



The best thing about college sports is the enthusiasm of the students that are members of the band and cheerleading teams. Especially the cheerleading teams.

Best,

Sean

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Jackson Generals 1 at Montgomery Biscuits 7 (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