Friday, April 29, 2016

River Plate 0 at Independiente Del Valle 2 (Copa Libertadores Round of 16, First Leg) - April 28, 2016


I spent the past few days in Ecuador avoiding sports for the most part. I wasn't intending to see any games while I was here, but a lucky bit of soccer scheduling changed that pretty quickly. Independiente Del Valle, a team based in the suburb of Sangolqui, about 20 miles south of Quito, had advanced to the Round of 16 in the Copa Libertadores, South America's equivalent to the Champions League. IDV is not a traditional power and had never made it this far before, so the match was moved from their tiny home ground with a capacity of just 8,000 to Estadio Olimipco Atahualpa, the national stadium that holds 40,000 and is in the center of Quito. There was no way I could have made the trip to Sangolqui, so the move to a more central venue was perfect for me.



I was told by my hotel proprietor that tickets would be difficult to get, but had no idea how to determine if that was true. I decided to just show up and see what was available. The game was scheduled for an odd 5:30 start, and after a day of touring, rush hour traffic caused my wife and I to arrive a few minutes late. Even then, there were hundreds of tickets on the street, so we picked up a pair for face value ($5 each with no conversion as Ecuador uses the US dollar as its currency). When we entered the stadium, we were surprised to find that the place was packed, with nary a seat to be found.



Despite having seats printed on our ticket, we ended up standing near one of the corners, with about half the pitch visible through a chain-link fence. An Ecuadorian gentleman who spoke perfect English  overheard us talking and told us he was in the same boat; there was no way to navigate the crowd to find your seat, so we just stood there for the entire match.



There was no clock on the scoreboard, but I'd guess we missed the first 25 minutes of the game, which was still goalless at the time and finished that way at the half. The halftime break was fairly subdued, likely due to the recent earthquake that devastated the coast of Ecuador, leaving over 600 dead and $3 billion in damage. There was a pronounced national spirit on display, with "Si Se Puede" (Yes You Can) being chanted regularly. As well, a small collection of firemen and policemen paraded along the running track with a sign promoting solidarity of Quiteños. Halftime also allowed us to check out the various vendors who were selling chocolate bars, Halls, cigarettes, strange looking hot dogs, and some local treats. Even during the game, these vendors were everywhere, walking in front of fans through each section as there weren't many aisles for them to use. Meanwhile, some fans brought back big cups of Budweiser from some hidden concession stands, but we didn't want to leave our spot, buying a small bag of chips (with mayonnaise) for $1 instead.



River Plate (in white) are Argentine champions and heavy favourites, but playing in the altitude of Quito is difficult for any visitor, and the club had yet to win in five visits. In the second half, IDV was attacking the net closer to us and they started to put the pressure on, coming close on several occasions. In the 64th minute, the ball fell to Jose Angulo alone at the penalty spot, and he made no mistake, drilling a shot above a helpless Marcelo Barovero. The crowd went wild, sensing an upset in the making.



River Plate had two great chances to tie but Librado Azcona made two spectacular saves, while the hosts missed their own opportunity when a free kick hit the post. It appeared as if IDV would win with the lone goal, but in the final minute of stoppage time, Emiliano Tellechea was fouled in the area and Junior Sornoza scored the ensuing kick (below) to give IDV the 2-0 lead.



That was the last play of the game as IDV came away with the upset much to the delight of the fans. Highlights can be found on YouTube and are worth watching as this was quite an entertaining match.



Next Up

I'm already back in the States and starting my Texas League trip tomorrow before checking out the Jays on the road next week, who had better be out of their early season funk by then. As always, keep checking back for updates.

Best,

Sean

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Texas League Trip Planned


As I mentioned previously, I'm on a mission to see all AAA and AA parks this season. The eight-team Texas League is one of the AA circuits that I have been remiss in visiting, having only seen San Antonio and Tulsa back in 2001, as well as Midland last week. Since then, the Drillers have opened a new stadium, so I have six ballparks to visit to complete that league. As well, I have yet to see the Blue Jays in Arlington, so I wanted to make sure that any Texas trek coincided with a Toronto trip there. As luck would have it, the Jays are in San Francisco that same week, and I haven't seen them in AT&T Park either.

Here is the entire schedule:
Sat, Apr 30 Corpus Christi Hooks at Frisco RoughRiders (Texas League) 7:05 
Sun, May  1 Northwest Arkansas Naturals at Tulsa Drillers (Texas League) 1:05
Mon, May  2 Arkansas Travelers at Springfield Cardinals (Texas League) 11:10
Tue, May  3 Arkansas Razorbacks at Missouri State Bears (NCAA Baseball) 6:35
Wed, May  4 Springfield Cardinals at Northwest Arkansas Naturals (Texas League) 11:05 
Thu, May  5 Tulsa Drillers at Arkansas Travelers (Texas League) 7:10
Fri, May  6 New Orleans Zephyrs at Round Rock Express (PCL) 6:05 
Sat, May  7 San Antonio Missions at Corpus Christi Hooks (Texas League) 7:05
Mon, May  9 Toronto Blue Jays at San Francisco Giants 7:15
Tue, May 10 Toronto Blue Jays at San Francisco Giants 7:15
Wed, May 11 Toronto Blue Jays at San Francisco Giants 12:45
Wed, May 11 Houston Dynamo at San Jose Earthquakes (MLS) 7:30
Thu, May 12 BYU Cougars at San Francisco Dons (NCAA Baseball, West Coast) 3:00 
Fri, May 13 Toronto Blue Jays at Texas Rangers 7:05
Sat, May 14 Missouri State Bears at Dallas Baptist Patriots (NCAA Baseball, MVC) 2:00 
Sat, May 14 Toronto Blue Jays at Texas Rangers 7:05
Sun, May 15 Toronto Blue Jays at Texas Rangers 2:05
If you are around, let me know and we can enjoy a game together! Otherwise, check back for updates.

Best,

Sean

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Texas Tech Red Raiders 5 at New Mexico Lobos 6 (10, NCAA Baseball) - April 20, 2016


When I first planned this trip, I thought I would stay in El Paso for the morning Chihuahuas game and then make the four-hour drive to Albuquerque for the night game at Isotopes Park. But then I checked the New Mexico Lobos baseball schedule and found that they had an afternoon game against #11 Texas Tech. This allowed me to escape El Paso early and complete the drive before lunch. I arrived around noon and made my way to Loyola's Family Restaurant, famous for its appearances on Better Call Saul, for a quick lunch.



Suitably sated, I headed over to Santa Ana Star Field, where the Lobos play. They actually used Isotopes Park from the time it opened in 2003, but returned to their campus home after renovations were completed midway through the 2013 season. The two parks are less than half a mile apart, in fact the parking lot next to the ballpark is used for Isotopes games. Originally known as Lobo Field, the naming rights were sold to Santa Ana Star Casino late last year.



For Lobos games, the lot is free and tickets are just $5, cash only. For an extra $5 you can relax in a shaded tent along third base (below), but most fans choose to sit in the bleachers behind home plate.



The view of the Sandia Mountains is quite nice here. You can also see the Lobos football stadium just beyond the center field fence below.



There is a single concession stand selling overpriced food and beverages (a litre of water is $6.50!) and nothing else to note, as is common at NCAA baseball venues. There is no shade in the bleachers except for the first couple of rows in front of the press box, so get there early if you want to avoid baking on the metal bleachers, and bring plenty of sunscreen. The press box is so small that visiting radio broadcasters are forced to work in the stands, so if you don't know much about the players, try sitting close to them as they provide a lot of useful information.



Texas Tech (30-9, 1st in the Big 12) came in on a 10-game winning streak and had won the opener the night before, while New Mexico was 26-12 and leading the Mountain West. The game featured 13 total pitchers for each side, not unusual for these midweek encounters when teams utilize their less capable fourth and fifth starters. With all the pitching changes, the game dragged on and on; TTU used three relievers in the fifth inning to maintain a 5-3 lead. The fourth reliever, Ryan Moseley, who used to be a Friday starter, kept the lead but was lifted after giving up an unearned run in the 8th. After TTU went quietly in the 9th, Hayden Howard came in to preserve the win, but Chris DeVito doubled with one out and then Michael Eaton laced a two-out double down the right field line to tie the game and send it to extras. The Red Raiders loaded the bases in the tenth but Stephen Smith popped out to end the threat. In the bottom half, Andre Vigil singled with one out. Dalton Bowers came up and executed the hit and run perfectly. As Vigil approached third, the right fielder slipped and Vigil was waved home. The throw from the cutoff man arrived just as Vigil slid home with the winning run as New Mexico snapped the Tech winning streak with the exciting 6-5 victory.



The Lobos celebrate above with the final score in the background. The game ended at 4:40, leaving plenty of time to make it over to Isotopes Park for the second half of the doubleheader, won 4-1 by visiting Reno.

Next Up

I'm returning to Texas next week to complete the AA Texas League plus Round Rock in the PCL. The week after, I will be seeing the Jays in San Francisco and Arlington. As always, check back for recaps.

Best,

Sean

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Tacoma Rainiers 11 at El Paso Chihuahuas 7 (PCL) - April 19, 2016


Two years ago, the El Paso Chihuahuas were born to much laughter and derision. But odd nicknames are not unusual in minor league circles, and as the team enters its third season, other new monikers (Yard Goats for example) have taken attention away from the Chihuahuas, which has allowed them to take root in the El Paso community.



The franchise moved from Tucson and took up residence in the newly constructed Southwest University Park, named for a local technical school that has no athletic programs of its own. Located in downtown El Paso, the venue received great reviews from the beginning, though it was considered somewhat expensive by some. I found on my visit that a bit of planning can keep costs down and you can enjoy a AAA game here for as little as $10.



Due to the downtown location, parking can be difficult, especially as games start just as rush hour is finishing. There are several lots around the ballpark with the Convention Center lot being the closest. Prices here ranged from $7 upwards, but your best bet is to find a metered spot a few blocks away. Meters expire at 6 p.m., so if you arrive downtown at 5:30 for a 6:30 start, you will only pay 50 cents to park, with the added advantage of quick access to the highway after the game. The area around San Jacinto Square has a number of spots that were open at that time and the walk is no more than 5 minutes to the Santa Fe Gate (above), next to which a box office is located. Of course, if you see a weekday game, you will be forced to use a lot as meters are only good for two hours.



The next concern is tickets. There are at least a dozen options (listed as zones) with prices varying by the day of the week. There are $40 club seats for Thursday/Friday games, with the cheapest seat going for $15 on game day (you can save $3 by buying in advance). However, there are $5 lawn tickets, which get you in the ballpark. Although there are ushers at every aisle, you can try your luck at sneaking into in a less popular section, but I prefer the standing areas along the third base line with small tables on which you can rest your dinner or your scorebook.



I spent most of the game here (view above) and then took a seat for the final couple of innings without a problem. There is also a $10 SRO ticket, which makes no sense as if you aren't going to be sitting, just spend $5 for the lawn ticket.



The main concourse is spacious and decorated with arches that support the upper deck. There is a path that encircles the entire ballpark, so you can walk all the way around, taking pictures from various vantage points. Below is the left field corner, with one of the special seating sections in the foreground and the lawn area in the background.



There is an incredible variety of food here that rivals many major league ballparks. Some of it is overpriced ($12 for an ice cream sundae for example), but I had a $5 cheese quesadilla that was made to order and was quite satisfying. This ballpark is huge and there are different concessions all the way around the concourse, many of which sell items that are not available elsewhere, so get there as soon as gates open so you can explore and make sure you get what you want.



The design of the park is quite impressive, and makes use of some of the surrounding buildings, similar to Petco Park, where the parent Padres play. Note that seats on the third base side are shaded in the evening as you can tell from the shadows above. There are also standing areas on the upper level along first base. The two buildings below are hospitality pavilions, which are open to the public if no event is taking place, as long as you have an actual seat (i.e. SRO and lawn ticket holders are not allowed in).



As you can see below, there are small terraces that extend slightly into the field of play; I think this would provide a great standing spot during the game, but sadly I was not allowed to prove this.



The view from the outfield; the park is asymmetrical and again you can see the difference between the sun-drenched and shaded areas.



The picture below is taken from the end of the upper level along third base. This really is more than a minor league park, and they have done a great job fitting it into the downtown core.



By the time the game started, most of the sections were more than half filled though, with announced attendance over 85% of the 7,500 capacity. Thus if you really need a seat, better to spring for the extra $10 rather than try to find an empty seat and risk being booted out on multiple occasions. Fans have taken to their team and there was a lot of Chihuahua gear on display. The crowd was very diverse too, with a sizable portion coming from the Hispanic community (El Paso is right on the Mexican border). Fans were polite and watched the game, with most staying until the end despite their team being blown out early.



Overall, I was very impressed with everything about this stadium. It is aesthetically pleasing and makes good use of its downtown location, and has something for everyone. No doubt that a family of four will struggle to keep it under $100 for a game, which is quite a bit for minor league ball, but for a sports traveller on a budget, a good time can be had for less than $20.

The Game

Tacoma (Seattle) was in town and El Paso sent MLB vet Jeremy Guthrie to the mound to start against Cody Martin. Down 2-0 in the fourth, the Rainiers batted around, scoring 6, including a 3-run homer from former Met Mike Baxter. Guthrie returned for the fifth and Tacoma again sent 9 men to the plate, scoring 5, all charged to Guthrie, who finished with 11 earned runs in just 4.1 innings. Retirement beckons. Anyway, El Paso added singles in the next three frames and notched a pair in the ninth to make it almost respectable, but the Rainiers rode those two big innings to an 11-7 win. The main scoreboard removed the linescore as soon as the game ended, so all I could get was the ribbon board below.



Notes

This was my 26th active AAA stadium. I still have Gwinnett in the International League and Omaha, Nashville, and Round Rock in the PCL to complete the circuit, which I hope to do this year.

Best,

Sean

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Northwest Arkansas Naturals 3 at Midland RockHounds 4 (Texas League) - April 18, 2016


When I lived in Vancouver in the early 1990s, I went to many Canadians games at beautiful Nat Bailey Stadium. In those days, they were the AAA affiliate of the White Sox (Sammy Sosa played there for a few games in 1991) and then the Angels, whose AA club was in Midland, Texas. Whenever a player got promoted or demoted, we'd hear that mysterious Texas town mentioned yet again. As this was before the Internet, we had to use a paper map to look it up, and found it to be in the western part of the state, about midway between Fort Worth and El Paso and possibly the most remote minor league location. Back then, I could only dream of making the trip to rural Texas, but now that I am on a mission to visit all minor league ballparks, I finally got to see what Midland is all about.



The Midland Rockhounds of the AA Texas League play out of Security Bank Ballpark, which opened in 2002 to replace Christensen Stadium, the long-time home of the team. The new ballpark is part of the Scharbauer Sports Complex in the southwest corner of the city, surrounded by a business park and some new residences, but almost nothing in the way of bars and restaurants. There is also a 15,000-seat football stadium next door which hosts two high school football teams and the Midland/Odessa Sockers of the PDL.



Parking is free in the large lot, and tickets range from $9 for reserved seats, which are the best bet as the park is quite small. Moreover, the protective netting extends all the way along the top of the dugouts, so only the reserved seats have a clear view of the field. On Mondays, you can get a reserved ticket for $2 if you bring a 7/11 cup.



There are a number of features here that are worth a quick look. Out front is a statue of a catcher, with plaques behind him denoting the team's successes. Most notably, they are the back-to-back Texas League champions.



Of course, make note of the Josh Donaldson picture on the team store doors next to the main entrance. Midland is Oakland's affiliate and Donaldson played here in 2009. There is another Toronto connections: Joe Carter stopped in for a visit in 1981-82 as a Cub farmhand, and he is honoured by a small banner along the concourse, as are other past stars such as Lee Smith and Bruce Sutter.



For evening games from Monday-Wednesday, gates open only 30 minutes before first pitch, which was very frustrating as I need more time to complete the tour, particularly since I am doing the review for Stadium Journey. I had to rush around taking pictures and notes and didn't even have time to fill out my scorecard. As you can see below, there is a single seating bowl with blue seats, while the suite level is up top, a very typical design. You can see the netting in the shot below.



One interesting feature is that the bullpens are actually out on the field, making a homer to right relatively easy at 322 feet.



The design is quite different down the left field line, where the visiting bullpen lies.



There are a number of concession stands but the offerings are pretty basic, though inexpensive. Try the chicken tenders, $5 for three, not bad. The strangest item was the peanut butter and jelly bacon hot dog, which is not as bad as it sounds and gets you all four food groups for only $5.



Despite perfect spring weather and two teams filled with prospects, few fans showed up for this one. Those that were in attendance didn't seem to care much about the game, and neither did the mascots. With the dugout now protected, they stood on top and blocked my view during the action, tossing frisbees to the crowd among other antics. I had to move to get a clear view, not a big deal in an empty park, but rather annoying to fans who actually want to watch the game.

Overall, Security Bank Ballpark is a pretty typical minor league venue in its design. The boring neighbourhood and inattentive fans should not dissuade you from making a visit however, because the other aspects are actually pretty good. Minor league baseball is still the best value out there, and although there are some franchises that are sacrificing fan friendliness in the name of the almighty dollar, this is one that is not. So next time you are in Texas in the summer, see if the Rockhounds are home and get yourself to West Texas for a game.

The Game

Northwest Arkansas (Kansas City) was visiting with top prospect Raul Mondesi Jr. (whose father Raul played for Toronto). The younger Mondesi actually had an at-bat in the 2015 World Series at age 20, and he was very gracious in signing for the young lady next to me.



Another top prospect is Bubba Starling, drafted 5th overall in 2011 and given a record $7.5 million signing bonus, enough money to stop him from becoming the Nebraska QB. Starling has struggled however, and is looking like the next Drew Henson. He's only 23, but his early .152 average and a seeming inability to hit breaking pitches do not bode well.



Alec Mills (22nd round, 2012) started for the Naturals, while Midland countered with Chris Jensen (6th round, 2011 by Colorado, below). Both pitchers lasted six innings, yielding three runs apiece. In the bottom of the 7th, the Rockhounds had runners on second and third with two out and Jaycob Brugman (17th, 2013, Oakland's 21st-ranked prospect) at bat. He laced one to center that Starling appeared to catch, and the umpire ruled Brugman out. The Naturals left the field and I updated my scorecard, only to look up and see the umpires conferring. Uh-oh. Turns out the ball was trapped, so the call was reversed, sending Naturals manager Vance Wilson into conniptions and an ejection. One run scored and that turned out to be the winner as Midland won 4-3. The radio broadcast indicated that the correct call was made, so I'll have to believe them, but that was something I had never seen before.



There's the final below, unfortunately the linescore was removed immediately after the last out was recorded. The game took just 2:27, very quick even at this level.



Notes

I attended the following game on Tuesday morning, when gates opened much earlier to allow kids in, and enjoyed a more thorough walk around. I noticed that the grounds crew has a pet dog that follows them around before the game.



I also noticed that many foul balls land in the parking lot. I saw one foul ball end up underneath a truck, and when I left the game (after 6 innings as I had to get to El Paso), it was still there, so I scooped it up. According to my buddy Andrew, that counts, so I now have a Texas League ball.

Best,

Sean

Monday, April 18, 2016

Tacoma Rainiers 10 at Albuquerque Isotopes 7 (11, PCL) - April 17, 2016


When I did my 2001 road trip to all 30 MLB ballparks, the Albuquerque Dukes had just moved to Portland, meaning that there was no pro team in New Mexico to check out when I drove through. In 2003, the Calgary Cannons moved to Albuquerque and became the Isotopes, but the city's relatively remote location made it difficult to visit when I was living in Asia. Only now that I reside in the USA can I take a quick trip to the Land of Enchantment and finally see a game in New Mexico.



The team plays out of Isotopes Park, located right across the street from the University of New Mexico's football stadium. Parking in all surrounding lots is $5, but on weeknights and weekends,  you can park for free on Buena Vista Drive. Before you go in, check out some of the art on display, including this pitching sculpture by local artist Bill Arms (no pun intended).



Tickets start at $8 for berm seats, and there is no reason to pay more as the stadium is huge and you can generally sit in the reserved seats down the lines without too much trouble. There are standing areas just above first and third base with small tables on which you can rest your scorebook.



As rain was threatening, I sat in the upper section you see above, as it was covered and nearly empty. Just to the left is the suite area, which comprises two levels. The view from the upper level is below.



The advantage of sitting here is that you get dibs on foul balls. I was sitting on the aisle seat in the last row, but moved a few seats to the right as the game got underway. Just 5 pitches in, Boog Powell (20th round in 2012 by Oakland, since traded twice) fouled one that landed on the seat I had just vacated. It didn't bounce away, so I scampered over to pick it up, my first PCL foul ball. The Isotopes give anybody that gets a foul ball a glass holder with the team logo, a really nice touch.



The Sandia Crest provides great views beyond centerfield, but on this cloudy day, it was mostly obscured.



The park has a great selection of food, though it is rather expensive for minor league ball. There is also a fun zone for kids in right field. The unique ballpark feature is in center field, where there is a small knoll and the fence is actually curved in.



The Isotopes nickname is taken from the Simpsons, whose Springfield Isotopes threatened to move to Albuquerque back in 2001 in an episode that saw Homer go on a hunger strike. When the new franchise arrived in 2003, fans voted for the Isotopes nickname in a landslide. New Mexico has a strong scientific community and so the name fits in more ways than one, and the team led all of minor league baseball in merchandise sales during its first season. The Simpsons are present in the ballpark in the form of statues and washroom entrances.



Overall, I really enjoyed my time here and will be back for another game on Wednesday night.

The Game

Although the weather was chilly, the rain held off, and the teams put on an entertaining display. Tacoma (Seattle's affiliate) took a 3-0 lead in the first helped by a Mike Zunino homer, his fourth in four games. Zunino was the 3rd overall pick in 2012 out of Florida but struggled in three seasons in Seattle, batting .193 in over 1,000 plate appearances. He might be a AAAA player but if he keeps this up, the Mariners will call him up soon to find out for sure. Anyway, Albuquerque (Colorado) tied it in the second and added 2 in the third and 2 more in the fifth to take a 7-3 lead. Isotope starter Eddie Butler (46th overall, 2012) left with the lead after 6 solid frames, but Simón Castro gave up a leadoff homer to Mike Brantly (3rd round in 2010 by Detroit) and Tacoma tacked on a double and four weak singles to tie the game. The bats dried up after that, and we went to the 11th still knotted at 7. Nelson Gonzalez came on for Albuquerque and loaded the bases on a single and two walks. With two out, Ed Lucas, who enjoyed a couple of seasons with the Marlins, came to the plate. He was 0/5 but had hit the ball well a couple of times and seemed due. Sure enough, he crushed one to center that cleared the bases and allowed former Cub Blake Parker the easy save as Tacoma won 10-7.



Powell (above shattering his bat) went 0-6 while the rest of his team pounded out 19 hits. That's gotta hurt. There's the final below on the very impressive scoreboard.



A very interesting game, with no single run innings, 32 total hits, and no errors. Only five walks too, so it had a decent pace.

Notes

I still have to see games in Alaska, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming to complete all 50 states.

Next Up

I'm heading to Texas Monday to see a couple of games in Midland before returning to the Mountain Time Zone on Tuesday for a game in El Paso. The trip finishes on Wednesday back in ABQ as the New Mexico Lobos have an afternoon game while the 'Topes play in the evening. Check back for updates!

Best,

Sean