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 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.



Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Ultimate Football Road Trip (2014 Edition) - My Book!

You might have forgotten about my 2013 NFL Road Trip, but I did not. I spent most of May writing a book about it. But rather than summarize my odyssey in diary format, I used the experience to plan a 2014 NFL road trip, offering tips in each city on the stadium, hotels, bars, attractions, as well as routes between the games. The games you would see are based on the actual 2014 NFL schedule, staring with the season opener in Seattle and finishing with a doubleheader in the Bay Area on December 20 and 21.

The book is called Ultimate Football Road Trip (2014 Edition), implying I'll update it next year with info on the new stadiums in San Francisco and Minnesota, and so on, and so on. I used a vanity publisher that had worked with Stadium Journey in the past, as there wasn't much time to shop it around with the content only meaningful for a few months, so it is only in ebook format.

The book is finally available and ready to become a New York Times bestseller. At this point it is only available on iBooks and iTunes for you Mac and iPad users but Kindle and Nook versions should be out shortly. The links are below for each version:

iBooks (US only)
Kindle  (Available at all Amazon stores worldwide if you do not have a US account)

Have a look and considering buying one for yourself and your friend and your kids and your parents and your colleagues and your neighbours and everyone you know. At $4.99, it's a bargain!

2015 and Beyond

The plan is to update this book for 2015 and add other leagues going forward to create a series of annual sports road trip books in hard copy (think Lonely Planet for sports).

If you are a publisher and interested in this idea, please contact me at sean(dot)macdonald(at)stadiumjourney(dot)com.



Saturday, July 19, 2014

Toronto Argonauts 17 at Ottawa Redblacks 18 - July 18, 2014

Football in Ottawa had a long and storied history with the Rough Riders, who spent 120 years in Canada's capital in various leagues and guises. Unfortunately, mismanagement in the late 1980s and 1990s coupled with the arrival of the NHL's Senators and AAA baseball's Lynx led to the team folding in 1996. Six years later, new owners tried again with the Renegades, but they were unable to secure the Rough Riders intellectual property, and never established themselves as a viable entertainment option, disappearing in 2006 after four unsuccessful seasons.

In 2008, Ottawa 67s owner Jeff Hunt bought the franchise and eventually the rights to the Rough Riders name and history, with a plan to start a third iteration in 2010. However, Frank Clair Stadium was literally falling apart, with cracks in the south side stands being noticed. This led to a long-term renovation with the south side being completely demolished and rebuilt. Delays in construction postponed the opening of the venue, renamed TD Place Stadium, until 2014. Even the 67s had to evacuate the Civic Center (now known as TD Place Arena), playing two seasons at Scotiabank Place as the entire Lansdowne Park area was redone, with condos and an entertainment area also being added. Much of the work remains unfinished, but the stadium was finally ready for football. That's the south side below, you can see on the left how the lattice work is incomplete.

With the Saskatchewan Roughriders contesting use of the old Rough Riders nickname, Hunt decided to name the team the Redblacks instead, stylizing it in all caps and asking the media to follow along. Few have done so. Despite this rather questionable move, Hunt has done a lot right, bringing the CFL back to Ottawa with proper marketing and promotions to get fans excited. The delays were likely a blessing in the end as it gave management more time to get things right.

With renovations still being completed on TD Place, the Redblacks played their two preseason games and first two regular season games on the road. Their home opener was played in Week 4, on Friday night. As luck would have it, I had to pop back to Canada that weekend and so decided on Ottawa as my destination. Although the game was listed as sold out on the CFL website, there were single tickets available online, so I picked up one for me and one for my friend Sharpy. On Friday, we took transit (free with your game ticket, an idea other cities should adopt) and made our way along Bank Street to see Ottawa and Toronto engage in the battle of Ontario.

Arriving nearly three hours before game time, we had time to enjoy the free party that was being held next to the Aberdeen Pavilion (above). The Trews, one of Canada's top bands, performed while fans mingled in the beautiful afternoon sunshine. It was better than most of the NFL pregame parties I had attended last year. A few Argos shirts were spotted, including one Doug Flutie version worn by Sharpy that garnered a few comments, but most fans were sporting Redblacks merchandise in some form or other.

We made our way into the stadium around 5:30 and were amazed at how crowded it was despite being 90 minutes until kickoff. Fans were definitely ready for the return of football. Unfortunately, the stadium wasn't. First, there were problems with the kitchens in some of the concession stands. Orders were being taken but food wasn't ready. Some cashiers told customers this, giving them the option to choose ready-made pretzels or popcorn, but others made no mention of the wait. I ordered chorizo poutine ($8) that took about 25 minutes to be delivered (though it was very good and a huge portion, so worth the wait). Other fans had ordered ribs which were sold out before they could receive their portion, necessitating a refund and causing even more confusion. Despite this complete lack of co-ordination, orders were still being taken, leading to some very frustrated, hungry fans.

The mistakes continued during the pregame ceremonies. First, the Redblacks did not come out of their large helmet (above) when they were being introduced, waiting until the end of the introductions to come out as a group. Perhaps this was intentional, but it certainly seemed odd as another player had to run over and get them to run onto the field. Then the national anthem began without an introduction, as people stood up and players hustled to the sideline to stand at attention. The anthem had to be finished by a certain time so the flyover would occur just as the last words were being sung, hence the lack of a proper introduction.

With that done, we were ready for kickoff (above). Toronto was missing their top three receivers, while Ottawa had struggled on offense so far, so a low-scoring affair was expected and that is what happened. Neither team moved the ball with any authority, and the first half saw Ottawa score 3 field goals while the Argonauts booted 2 and added a rouge to go into the break down 9-7. Fans in the south side kept things interesting by bringing back an old chant, "North Side Sucks!", and repeating it throughout the half.

Our seats were in the upper deck near the west goal line (view above), but we saw very little action, so I moved down at halftime and stood on the concourse behind the Argonaut bench. This offered a better view and not a single usher asked me to leave. Even then, nothing happened on the field as Argo QB Ricky Ray could not generate any offense. That's him below scampering for a few yards. Ray was intercepted midway through the quarter and Ottawa used the field position to add another field goal and take a 12-7 lead into the final frame.

Early in the fourth, Ray connected with Darvin Adams for a 20-yard touchdown, the only major of the evening. The teams then exchanged field goals over the next few possessions, with Toronto's coming with just 1:33 left. Given how anemic the Ottawa offense had been up to then (Chevon Walker, running below, was the star with 60 yards on 12 carries), it looked like the Argos would escape with a win.

By now, we had moved down to the west end zone, where a grass berm separates fans from the field. Many had chosen to stand here as it provides a quick escape to the street after the game. It also happened to be where the play of the game occurred. With a minute to go, Henry Burris hit Kierrie Johnson with a perfect pass for 43 yards to the Argo 21-yard line, just in front of the berm. Johnson had dropped a sure touchdown in the first half, but atoned for his mistake with a superb grab over his left shoulder. After a clock-killing run, Brett Maher had no trouble kicking his sixth field goal of the night (below) to give the Redblacks the 18-17 lead. Toronto had 28 seconds to do something, but Ray was intercepted on the last play of the game and the hometown fans had something to cheer about after eight long years in the football wilderness.

This was an ugly game with 21 penalties, including a few stupid ones from Toronto that allowed Ottawa to maintain drives. Ottawa ran a fake punt play for a first down and did not commit a turnover and that was the difference in a game that disappointed only the Argo fans in attendance. Congrats to Redblacks fans and let's hope the team is still there 120 years from now!

There is only one scoreboard behind the west end zone, which is why this picture is at such an odd angle. It is quite nice but they need some more ribbon boards to display in-game statistics. Other than that and the few glitches before the game, this was a great experience and I'm glad I was able to go. I am sure things will get worked out in time for the next home contest. Sadly, I will be back in New York and starting a new job, and thus unable to attend, but if you are in the Ottawa area, make plans to see the Redblacks in their inaugural season.



Monday, July 14, 2014

World Cup Review

Over the past month, soccer fans put aside their jobs and families and spent nearly every day glued to the television set to watch 64 soccer games. The tournament was fantastic even though the knockout stages were a bit disappointing, with new stars emerging and old ones taking their final bow. Germany became the first European nation to win the World Cup in the Americas, while the US performance coupled with some great coverage by ESPN brought soccer to a new audience in America.

I have a few stats to pass along, and a brief essay on the future of the game in the United States.

Confederation Records

Despite a rather ignominious ending for Brazil and a final defeat for Argentina, the six South American sides combined for the best record among the five confederations. This excludes matches between teams in the same confederation, while matches that went to penalty kicks are considered draws. Yes, Costa Rica and the Netherlands officially have no losses in the tournament record, along with Germany. The standings are in W-L-D format.

South America (CONMEBOL)  15- 6-3
Europe        (UEFA)      20-10-11
North America (CONCACAF)   5- 6-5
Africa        (CAF)        3-11-3
Asia          (AFC)        0- 9-3

In 2010, South American squads went 12-6-6 to take the overall best record despite not winning anything meaningful then either. Asian clubs regressed after a 4-6-7 record in South Africa.


There were 171 goals scored (2.67 per game), with 126 of those coming during the run of play, nearly 2 per contest.

There were 12 penalty goals (with one miss by France's Benzema against the Swiss) and 5 own goals, including the first score in the tournament.

Only 3 goals were scored directly from free kicks, such as the scorcher from David Luiz against Colombia, while another 7 were scored indirectly from a free kick, with the wonderful strike from Claudio Marchisio against England one of the highlights. A further 18 goals came from corner kicks, so only 28 total from set pieces.

Of the 126 scored during the run of play, 14 came from shots outside the box (James Rodriguez against Uruguay the most notable), 15 from shots in the crease (such as Clint Dempsey's go-ahead goal against Portugal), 16 from headers (Silvestre Varela's last second tying marker in the same game) and 12 from rebounds (such as Thomas Müller's game-winner over the USA). The other 69 goals came from shots inside the box, including the final one from Mario Götze.

Obviously you can categorize these differently as you wish, for example that Müller goal came off a corner and was a shot outside the box, but Howard had saved the first shot so it was no longer a set piece, and the rebound trumps the shot outside the box.

The Future of Soccer in America

I watched the final at a bar yesterday and it was great to see it full of fans new to the game. Some pundits have written that American soccer can use the tournament to grow itself beyond its current status, becoming a true major league sport. I am not so sure. The World Cup is simply the best sporting event out there, with the best players from all over the world competing for a full month. The Euro might have more quality with no weaklings invited, but nothing captures the imagination like a relative minnow beating a world power, such as Costa Rica did against both Uruguay and Italy. This is simply not replicable in domestic competition.

I watched some of the Portland-Seattle tilt on Sunday night and it was mildly entertaining, but without the narrative that will attract casual fans. Furthermore, the best soccer players in the world are playing in Europe for the most part. Sports fans in North America get the best players in baseball, football, hockey, and basketball and are likely to expect the best in soccer too. Having a few USMNT players in the league helps but we really want to see big names, and not those on the downside of their careers.

Another problem is the existing soccer snobs, referred to as snoccers by Dan Patrick, who seem to want to keep new fans out. This is how niche culture protects itself, by pretending it is more than it is. Art, music, film - all have snobby fans that denigrate those who prefer more mainstream pursuits, while at the same time desperately wishing they could be mainstream themselves. We all want validation. If you enjoy soccer and want it to succeed, invite fans of all kinds in and stop thinking you are special because you discovered the game three years ago. Oh, and if you are the worst kind of fan who refuses to use the word soccer in America, remember the word originated in England as a short form for Association Football. Only when it became popular stateside did the English decide to stop using it. American football is the dominant sport here, so quit being a pretentious douche and use soccer without smirking.

I would love for soccer to become more popular here but it is going to take a lot of work from the league. The season is similar to that of baseball, and with MLB games taking over 3 hours now, perhaps a direct attack on America's pastime could increase fan interest, along with aggressive expansion focusing on keeping the game American. We have a new team joining the MLS next season, New York City FC, playing out of Yankee Stadium. As Keith Olbermann said, let's not copy the Europeans, instead, give the teams real nicknames. "Why not the New York Yankees here too?" Olbermann asked. Last night's game was between the Sounders and Timbers, two great monikers that describe the Pacific Northwest location of the clubs. Let's have all MLS teams with nicknames and stop trying to emulate Europe.

The next big tournament is the 2015 Copa America (June 11-July 4 in Chile) followed immediately by the 2015 Gold Cup (July 7-26). I'd like to see the US invited to the Copa America in place of Jamaica as it would increase the profile of the team here and give them top sides to play against. Despite the good showing in the World Cup, CONCACAF teams in general aren't that strong. The USMNT could gain invaluable experience by scheduling more friendlies against top competition, but there is nothing like a world-class tournament to improve. if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best and once every four years is just not enough meaningful games. Whatever happens though, it will be interesting to follow along as soccer strives to gain widespread acceptance in the United States.



Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Hudson Valley Renegades 0 at Brooklyn Cyclones 3 (7, New York-Penn League) - July 8, 2014

After checking out Staten Island the other day, I wanted to compare New York's other minor league ballpark. MCU Park on Coney Island hosts the Brooklyn Cyclones and they conveniently had a morning doubleheader yesterday starting at 11:30. I knew I wouldn't stay for both games with the World Cup semifinal at 4 pm, but this would be my last chance to visit on a weekday for some time so I woke early and headed out.

I took the Q train all the way from Astoria to the final stop at Coney Island, an 80-minute ride made all the more entertaining by my friend Mike "King" Casiano, who happened to be on the same car that I boarded. He's been watching baseball since 1963 and he does not look kindly on some of the recent changes in strategy, such as using three pitchers in an inning. Just asking about the most recent Met game will bring forth a string of invective that results in a lot of stares from fellow passengers.

Anyway, the ballpark is just a few minutes away from the subway stop, located right next to the theme park on Coney Island making for a unique view beyond left field. The newest roller coaster "Thunderbolt" is visible in the photo above. The theme park motif is felt throughout the ballpark and the game, with constant advertisements being blared over the PA and over-the-top promotions on the field. I just tuned it out after a while. There is no doubt Staten Island is a better place to watch a game - it is less crowded and offers baseball as the prime attraction instead of noise. There are few seats with shade as you can see below, another minor annoyance on a hot afternoon such as this.

To be fair it was Camp Day, which meant about 4,000 kids in attendance which ratcheted up the noise a few decibels. Counselors had plenty of extra tickets but they were not giving them away, asking $5 each, a fair price given that the cheapest at the box office were $10. It took a while to get in with the kids lined up at each entrance, so by the time I found my seat, it was time for first pitch.

Marcos Molina started for the Cyclones coming in having given up just 1 earned run in 18 innings. The Mets #10 prospect according to Baseball Prospectus, Molina just turned 19 and is in his third season with the organization, having been signed out of the Dominican Republic. He certainly looked strong today, keeping Renegade hitters like Bralin Jackson (below, 5th round, 2012) off balance throughout his appearance. After four hitless innings, the murmurs of an abbreviated no-hitter (minor league doubleheaders are only seven innings) began to make the rounds, but Wilmer Dominguez singled with two out in the fifth to end that hope.

The Cyclones scored in the first on a double steal of second and home, and added two more in the fourth on a huge homer from Michael Bernal to give Molina more than enough for the win, his second of the campaign. Josh Prevost (5th, 2014, out of Seton Hall) pitched the final two frames for Brooklyn, retiring all six men he faced to preserve the one-hitter. Enderson Franco pitched a 6-inning complete game in taking the loss. The game took just 96 minutes for 173 pitches, a wonderfully quick 1.8 PPM.

It took 45 minutes to get the second game underway, and I wanted to leave around 2:30 to get home in time for the Germany Brazil game. Brooklyn made it difficult by not getting a hit for three innings, and I debated whether to stay, as leaving a no-hitter, even in the minor leagues, would be a mistake for which I would never forgive myself. Fortunately, the Cyclones managed a single in the bottom of the fourth and I headed back, making it home in time to see Germany run rampant. The final score of the second game was 3-0 Hudson Valley, with the Cyclones managing only two hits, essentially the ¥ opposite of the first game.

Next Up

Ottawa! The RedBlacks have brought the CFL back to Canada's capital and I'll be there for the home opener next Friday. I'll have a big announcement before that though, so check back often to see what it might be!



Monday, July 7, 2014

Hudson Valley Renegades 7 at Staten Island Yankees 6 (New York-Penn League) - July 6, 2014

I've been pretty down on MLB lately. The overly slow games coupled with Toronto's June swoon have left me with no enthusiasm for following the sport. Fortunately, New York City has a couple of minor league teams that are just an hour away from where I live, and with most 2014 draftees signed and assigned, I can start to follow future stars. The Blue Jays moved their short-season affiliate from Auburn to Vancouver a few years back, so I won't be seeing any of their draft picks, but the other AL East teams are all in this league, so I can scout future enemies of the Blue Jays.

Yesterday saw the Hudson Valley Renegades (Tampa Bay) visiting the Staten Island Yankees in a late afternoon start, while Brooklyn hosted Aberdeen at 1 pm. The Wimbledon final went long enough to eliminate the earlier game from my list of options, so after a brief subway ride to Bowling Green, I took the Staten Island Ferry to reach Richmond County Bank Ballpark. The ride is free and takes about 25 minutes from Whitehall Terminal in Manhattan, usually leaving on the half-hour. It passes by the Statue of Liberty (above).

You are dropped off at St. George and from there, you have a view of the New York Harbor and Manhattan skyline beyond. The ballpark is just a couple of minutes away from here.

Tickets start at $9 and despite this being a beautiful Sunday, only 1,904 other fans showed up, so I was able to sit where I pleased. The sun sets beyond third base, so there is a lot of shade underneath the overhang for the entire game.

Great views of the skyline can be had along the first base line, and you will see a few large ships passing as well. Really one of the minors' more unique settings and a great place to escape the crush of New York City.

The Game

There were two relatively high 2014 draft picks making starts in this game. Jonathan Holder (below), a reliever who was dominant at Mississippi State and was drafted by the Yankees in the 6th round (182nd overall) made his first start after a couple of appearances in the Gulf Coast League. Holder sported long hair and a goatee in college, but as you can see below, the Yankees rules on facial hair are enforced all the way through their system.

His opponent was Chris Pike (below), drafted in the 9th round (277th overall) by Tampa Bay. Pike played 3 years at Fordham and spent his final year in the NAIA at Oklahoma City University where he tossed a perfect game in March.

The most notable name was Casey Gillaspie (below), Tampa Bay's fist rounder this year (20th overall). Brother of Conor of the White Sox, Gillaspie played for Wichita State and signed for $2 million. His early numbers show a few too many strikeouts but he's just 18 games into his pro career so it is not something to be concerned about just yet.

The game started fast, with both pitchers working quickly and batters swinging freely - the first two innings took just half an hour. In the bottom of the third, the Yankees plated a couple with Austin Aune (2nd, 2012) contributing an RBI double.

As mentioned, Holder was a reliever in college and it appears as if they are trying to convert him to a starter. His arm isn't ready for the extended workload though, so he was removed after just three innings and 40 pitches, and David Palladino (5th, 2013, above) was brought in. Pike lasted 60 pitches and four frames before being replaced by Darren Fischer (16th, 2013).

Although the first four innings took just over an hour, the relievers did not have the same control and the rest of the game was filled with walks, wild pitches, and errors. The Renegades scored three in the top of the 5th, including a 2-RBI single from Gillaspie, but Staten Island regained the lead in the bottom half when Ty McFarland (10th, 2014) doubled home Devyn Bolasky (31st, 2014) and then scored himself after a wild pitch and Aune RBI single. Both teams added single runs in the sixth, with McFarland's second error of the game contributing to Hudson Valley's unearned run, and then the Renegades added two in the seventh to take the lead for good. Braxton Lee (12th, 2014) bunted for a single and advanced to third when Palladino threw the ball past first. A wild pitch brought Lee home to tie the game at 5. After a walk to Jace Conrad (13th, 2014), Rony Bautista relieved and walked two more, with the second walk coming on a wild pitch that allowed Conrad to score the go-ahead run from second base.

Conrad singled to lead off the 9th and stole second and third behind an apparently unconcerned Bautista. After Gillaspie struck out, Hunter Lockwood (11th, 2013) hit a sacrifice fly to make it 7-5. This turned out to be the difference as Isaias Tejada homered in the bottom half but that was all they could manage as Hudson Valley won 7-6. The Renegades are now 16-5 and on an 8-game winning streak.


Despite scoring 7 runs, Hudson Valley had only 3 RBIs. Two runs scored on wild pitches, one on an error, and one on a double play ground out.

The game lasted 3:06 but 314 pitches were thrown for a peppy 1.68 PPM. Again, long games are not the problem in MLB, it is the slow pace!

It is interesting to see the mix of players on rosters at this level. Aune, for example, was drafted out of high school, so even though he was picked in the 2nd round, he spent two years in the Gulf Coast League before finally moving up to short season ball. There are players from early rounds all the way down to the mid-30s. Few baseball fans (including me) really understand how organizations manage their minor league systems; most players are just filler with no real hope of making the majors. As an example, of the 41 minor leaguers who appeared for Staten Island in 2014, only 7 made it to The Show, with most just enjoying a cup of coffee. Phil Coke is the most recognizable name among them.

On the way back to Manhattan, stand at the front of the ferry to get pictures of the skyline as you approach.

Next Up

The Brooklyn Cyclones are home for a morning doubleheader tomorrow and I'll head down to check that out before the World Cup semi-final. I am then heading back to Canada and will be in Ottawa for the RedBlacks home opener on July 18th. Check back for recaps of both those events.