Wednesday, February 22, 2017
The whole reason I was in Raleigh this weekend was to see the Maple Leafs visiting PNC Arena. The Leafs make two trips here, with the second on March 11th. By then, however, college basketball is into the conference tournament phase, and the ACC is ironically playing theirs at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. So I chose this past weekend as I was able to see two college hoops games and the first weekend of college baseball.
This was my third visit to PNC Arena, so no need to review it yet again, other than to mention that there is a free parking spot at the southeast corner of Trinity and Youth Center Drive, just across the street from the NC State football stadium (thanks to a Twitter follower for the tip). The walk is no more than 5 minutes and given that parking in stadium lots is $15, a no-brainer.
A few pictures to set the mood. Notice all those empty seats?
The Hurricanes are struggling on the ice and at the gate (no doubt due to inflated prices), and tickets were easy to get on the secondary market. We picked up a pair in Row R at the blue line for $70 each (face value $140), and even then I feel like we overpaid. But I wanted to get the best seats and didn’t want to risk scalpers having limited selection. The view is below:
We watched the Leafs warmup with backup keeper Curtis McElhinney preparing for the rare start after the Leafs had played (and lost) the night before against Ottawa.
Leo Komarov was also his usual intense self during the skate.
With the venue perhaps a third full, it was the emptiest I have ever seen an NHL rink during a regular season game. If you want to see NHL hockey on the cheap, this is one place to do it.
I expected the Leafs to be tired with their fourth game in six nights, and they were thoroughly outplayed in the first period, but McElhinney was superb, making a few point blank stops to keep the game scoreless as the Hurricanes outshot Toronto 15-9.
Just over a minute into the second, Tyler Bozak found James Van Riemsdyk with a beautiful two-line, cross-ice pass, and JVR saucered it to speedy Connor Brown, who had gotten behind the defense and tipped it past Cam Ward for a 1-0 lead. A few minutes later, Jake Gardiner shot the puck along the boards from behind the Leaf net all the way to the Carolina blue line, where rookie sensation Auston Matthews picked it up. He quickly skated in and cut in front of Ward, drawing a penalty but it was never called because Matthews backhanded the puck home as he was falling for one of the best goals of the year. McElhinney continued to frustrate the Canes who had a 31-21 shot advantage after two, but still trailed 2-0. Below is the Leafs shot chart for the period.
Two-goal leads have been the bane of the Leafs this season, but six minutes into the third, Gardiner floated one from the blue line that beat a surprised Ward, and two minutes later Brown scored an almost identical goal to the first, tipping home a JVR past that made it 4-0. Suddenly it looked like a victory was probable, and McElhinney made sure of it, stopping all 37 shots he faced to gain his first shutout as a Maple Leaf and the first Leaf shutout I have ever seen live. Thus making it the best game ever.
The Leafs are now 14-13-4 in my first visits to road rinks. I have to see Phoenix and Las Vegas next year to complete the league, and then Buffalo, Vancouver, and Detroit to complete all active venues.
A period of quiet over the next two months, with just a few weekend jaunts to keep me occupied. I’ll be heading to Princeton to see hockey next weekend, and then Detroit to say goodbye to the Palace and the Joe on the weekend of March 11. Check back for recaps and other topical posts as the baseball season is just around the corner.
Tuesday, February 21, 2017
On Sunday afternoon, Sharpy and I returned to Chapel Hill to see the UNC baseball team close out their season-opening series against Kentucky. If this were a basketball game, there would be 20,000 fans here, but college baseball doesn’t receive that kind of coverage until the College World Series. Which is good as it makes the experience far more relaxing than an overhyped hoops game.
The Diamond Heels play in Boshamer Stadium, located on the eastern edge of campus along Ridge Road. For evening and weekend games, free parking can be found in the Raleigh Road lot, from where the diamond is about a ten-minute stroll. It was a beautiful day with temperatures exceeding 70 degrees (that’s 20C for the rest of the world), absolutely perfect for the my first ballgame of the 2017 season.
The stadium was opened in 1972 and is named for Cary C. Boshamer, a 1917 grad whose donation allowed the new stadium to be built. After 35 years, it was torn down and rebuilt for the 2009 season, forcing the team to play the 2008 campaign in nearby Cary. Outside the main gate are a couple of panels, including one displaying all former players that was funded by the Steinbrenner Family as part of the rebuild. George Steinbrenner's daughter is a UNC alum and he had the Yankees play some spring training games here between 1977-81.
Like most NCAA ballparks, Boshamer Stadium is a simple, unpretentious design. Tickets are $7 to sit between the bases, and $5 down the lines. This place was nearly full and so if you want a good seat, I would recommend spending the extra $2 rather than risk getting kicked out several times.
Inside, the large concourse is mostly under a roof, and standing tables are provided all the way around for those who want to stay out of the sun, as the entire seating bowl is uncovered. I spent most of the game standing on the concourse as a full afternoon in the sunshine after hibernating for winter is not good for pasty white guys like myself.
Dimensions are 335, 400 and 340 feet, with the left-center field backdrop the Ehringhaus Residence Hall.
The highlight here is the Hall of Honor above 3rd base. It contains memorabilia from the program, which has been quite successful in its own right, though overshadowed by hoops in basketball-mad North Carolina. Like the basketball museum, a draft board is here and you can see Russ Adams here, who never did much as a Blue Jay.
Another interesting artifact is a schedule from 1955 for the Big 5 (below), the schools in the area, which included Davidson back then. Some fans actually watch the game from here, but on this day, there was no reason not to be outside.
There are also historical touches along the concourse, such as past national players of the year...
... and small signs commemorating other events and players above each section entrance.
Concessions are basic, but there are specials posted on TV screens around the concourse, so check those before purchasing. On this day, peanuts and Cracker Jacks were $1 each, a nice touch harkening back to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”.
Overall, Boshamer Stadium is another wonderful NCAA ballpark, nearly perfect in its simplicity. If only they could replace those infernal aluminum bats, this would be the purest game out there.
The ninth-ranked Diamond Heels had taken the first two games and were looking to sweep behind Luca Dalatri (drafted by Colorado in the 40th round last season), a freshman making his first career start. The Wildcats replied with sophomore Justin Lewis (19th round draft pick by San Diego in 2014), also making his first career start, and he gave up a solo shot to Logan Warmoth in the first, and a 2-run blast to Tyler Lynn in the second as North Carolina took a quick 3-0 lead. In the third, the Wildcats tied it up when Riley Mahan (40th round, San Francisco, 2014) hit a 2-run homer after Connor Heady had doubled home a run, but right away the Heels added another two spot, helped by a couple of balks from Lewis, who was soon replaced by Logan Salow.
The Wildcats added a run in the fourth to narrow the margin to 1, and with the game two hours long after just four innings, it looked like we might have to leave early to get back to Raleigh in time for the Leafs game. But after that Dalatri was strong, completing seven innings, while Salow kept UNC off the board during his five frames of relief. The final frame was tossed by Josh Hiatt who retired all three batters he faced as the Heels completed the sweep 5-4 in a game that took 3:11, giving us plenty of time to return to Raleigh.
A Toronto connection as Dalton Pompey's brother Tristan (31st round, Minnesota, 2015) is a freshman for Kentucky and managed a couple of hits. He is considered one of Canada's top baseball prospects and is shown below.
I'm including draft positions for those players who were drafted but chose to attend school instead of spending time in the minors. Scholarships are probably better than minor league salaries anyway, and most of these guys are long shots to reach the majors, so it makes sense that they hone their game while also getting an education. Will be interesting to see if Pompey ends up getting drafted again in a few years. Will be even more interesting to see if Dalton can finally spend the entire season with Toronto.
Monday, February 20, 2017
After forgoing Duke in favour of NC State in the afternoon, Sharpy and I made our way to Chapel Hill to complete our ACC hoops doubleheader with North Carolina hosting Virginia in a battle of ranked teams. It takes just over 30 minutes to get from Raleigh to the UNC campus, which is in the south part of town about three miles west of I-40. We drove through campus in the dwindling twilight, parking in the Bell Tower deck, so named for its proximity to the Bell Tower (below), which still functions. At $5, this lot is the cheapest option on campus for basketball, though you might be able to find free street parking outside its boundaries.
We went to check out the neighborhood at the north end of campus, enjoying the live music provided by some of the frat houses on Columbia, but the only bar that looked appealing (Top of the Hill at the corner of Columbia and Franklin) was extremely crowded, a sign of things to come. Rather than waste time looking for a quick drink, we made our way toward the Dean E. Smith Center, about a mile southeast. The walk takes you through much of campus, past the football stadium, around a residence, and down a dirt path before the Dean Dome comes into view. As you get closer, you are joined by more and more fans, each clad in Carolina blue and murmuring in anticipation of the event to come. The experience is unlike any I have had before, with so many fans walking a mile or more to the stadium from so many different directions, converging at the main entrance like thousands of believers coming to be baptised. Naturally, lineups to enter were very long by the time gates opened.
Before going in, we paid a quick visit to the Carolina Basketball Museum. It normally closes at 4 pm but was open until an hour before the game, and we had about ten minutes to check it out. Of course, Michael Jordan is the main attraction here, with his 1982 game winning shot leading to what was merely the first in a long career of championships.
There are several displays and if you plan to see a game here, make sure to get here early so you can enjoy this at your leisure. Two of my favourites are the championship trophies...
...and a draft board of first round picks.
You can see Vince Carter's name above (drafted by Golden State) and he is honoured outside with a large plaque along Letterman's Lane.
Tickets were sold out for this one, as they are for most ACC games, but face value for upper deck seats was $50 from what I could tell. Lower bowl seats are limited to season ticket holders and almost impossible to find for a reasonable price. UNC does sell returned tickets starting at 5 pm on the day before any sold out game, which is about the only way to get in for face value. Fortunately, I am writing the Stadium Journey review and was given a complimentary ticket, with the view below.
The first thing I noticed was that the crowds outside did not dissipate inside as the concourse was extremely crowded. The Smith Center, opened in 1986, has a capacity of 21,750 and every single fan has to navigate the single concourse after entering. With concession stand lineups occupying some of the space, moving around can become quite arduous. The same is true after the game, where the crowds return to their cars and dorm rooms, and sidewalks and staircases stay very crowded for the first quarter mile or so.
While you are making your way around the concourse, take the time to admire the posters and plaques that honour past teams and players, such as the 1982 championship team, above.
The venue is nicknamed the Dean Dome and it does have a dome at the very top, a unique design as it only covers part of the roof, as you can somewhat make out in the photo above.
Once you get inside the seating bowl, you will be overwhelmed by blue. Every seat is Carolina blue, and even the speakers and rafters are painted the same colour. And when you look up into the rafters, you will be amazed by the number of banners on display. There are 51 players whose numbers are honoured, plus all the ACC titles, tournament appearances, and other history. Each section of the ceiling has its own special collection of banners and it will take a few minutes to appreciate them all.
The upper deck seats go all the way up to row W or so, depending on which section you are in. This is quite far away, but as there are no suites here, not unreasonable. It is clear that this was designed to be an intimidating place to play for visiting teams and it certainly works well.
There is no center scoreboard, perhaps to improve acoustics. There are video boards above the seating bowl at each corner; one shows game stats while the other has replays. Ribbon boards separate the two seating levels and provide a scoreboard and game clock.
Food is quite basic, but also affordable. Most of the concessions serve the same old stuff like popcorn and pretzels, with the meatier selections tending towards Bojangles and Chick-Fil-A. If you want a sugar overload, try a pack of Munchkins, Dunkin' Donuts answer to Timbits and reasonably priced at $5.
What makes the Dean Smith Center such a memorable experience happens during the game itself. The fans are very loud and the relatively small size of the venue makes it louder still. Before the game, one side of the stadium yells “TAR” and the other replies “HEELS”, which really gets everyone going. When the Tar Heels are introduced as the C-A-R-O-L-I-N-A flags run onto the floor, everyone stands. During the game, when the team completes a key play, the place explodes with everyone cheering. Sound measurements on the video board indicated 102 dB, equivalent to a jet flying overhead at 1000 feet. There is a reason the team is 248-35 since the place opened.
Overall, this is one of the best places to watch college basketball, more like a religious spectacle than a sporting event. From the indoctrination of Carolina basketball history at the museum to the alma mater being sung at the end, this is a non-stop celebration of the sport and the university's place in it, and a must see for any fan of college basketball.
Virginia was ranked #14 and led the country in defense, giving up just 55.5 points per game, while the Tar Heels were #10 nationally and atop the ACC at 10-3. The Cavaliers broke out to an early 8-5 lead, but the Tar Heels went on a 12-2 run to make it 17-10. After that, Virginia simply stopped shooting the ball. They missed all 8 of their first-half three pointers, and UNC did just enough against their defense to build a 34-22 lead at the break.
The second half was more of the same as the Cavaliers launched another 9 unsuccessful treys, while the Tar Heels found holes in the Virginia defense, which led to a couple of thunderous dunks from Isaiah Hicks, the last of which put them up 51-29. Virginia was scoring less than a point per minute, but a couple of late threes got them to 41 points, still an embarrassment for a nationally-ranked team. North Carolina won both halves by 12 points in the 65-41 shellacking.
The Cavaliers shot 2/20 from downtown and only 15/54 overall (28%), making this a no-doubter from early on. Justin Jackson led all scorers with 20 points, including 4/8 from outside the arc. Not a great game, but a memorable one nonetheless.
If Duke had scheduled their game at 4:00, it would have been possible, though expensive, to do an ACC hoops tripleheader with NC State at noon and then this one. Somebody has to make sure this is possible next season.
Brice Johnson (still waiting to make his NBA debut with the Clippers after a preseason injury) and Marcus Paige (toiling in the D-League with Salt Lake) were honoured at halftime and their jerseys are the 50th and 51st added to the rafters.
Virginia lost their next game 54-48 in overtime to Miami. A great defense isn’t much use without at least an average offense. They’re going nowhere in the tournament unless they can regain some sort of shooting touch. As for North Carolina, they are starting to look dangerous and bear watching come March.
Sunday, February 19, 2017
When I first planned this weekend trip in the Raleigh-Durham area (primarily to see the Leafs visit the Hurricanes), I hoped to get to Cameron Indoor Arena to see Duke hosting Wake Forest. Blue Devil tickets are notoriously difficult to get, especially for intrastate battles, and with prices approaching Super Bowl levels on the secondary market, I decided to wait until next year's non-conference play to try again. Fortunately, the NC State Wolfpack had a game at the same time, so Sharpy and I headed over to PNC Arena in Raleigh to see them taking on #25 Notre Dame.
I had seen the Hurricanes here back in 2014, but was interested in checking out the stadium as a basketball venue. The Wolfpack are the bigger tenants, so I did another tour, but didn't notice much had changed in the time since I was here last. One feature that I do not remember from my previous visit was the center court logo from the Wolfpack's previous arena, Reynolds Coliseum, where the women's team still plays.
The team has 10 ACC championship trophies along with their 2 national titles, which are almost like a second thought in the display case.
There are dozens of banners around the ceiling commemorating each appearance in the NCAA tournament, but the most important will always be the 1983 championship.
As is the case for most basketball venues that are also used for hockey, there are only a few good sections of seats. In this case, all are in the club and quite difficult to sneak into as ushers are on their toes here.
The upper deck end seats were not sold for this game, which was not a very popular event as the Wolfpack are on a 6-game losing skid and not going to make the tournament.
In fact, coach Mark Gottfried got fired (well he resigned under pressure) so his concourse writeup will have to be edited.
The lower section in front of the hockey boards below is for students, which is how it should be. They are the ones who really make college basketball so much fun to watch and they should get the best seats.
Sharpy and I found lower level tickets for $25, a pretty good deal as uppers were $55 at the box office. We also received a parking pass, which saved another $10. Our view is below. That is the band in the far distance; they wear Where's Waldo shirts so they are easy to spot.
The Wolfpack have struggled for a while now, and some local media are suggesting it is time for a rebuild. I don't know how college programs rebuild given that their players are there for four years at the most, but right now, the lack of fans hurts the overall experience. Still, it is a lot cheaper than the other two options in the area.
The Fighting Irish came into town on a 3-game winning streak and it didn't take them long to get squarely in front with a 9-4 lead at the under 16. The Wolfpack kept it close and when an Abdul-Malik Abu dunk made it 25-21 with 5:47 to go, it seemed like we would have a game on our hands. But a Notre Dame 16-5 run, highlighted by a couple of threes from Matt Ryan (no, not that Matt Ryan), ended those misconceptions as the Irish took a 41-28 lead into the break.
The Wolfpack were welcomed out to start the second half by their cheerleaders (above) but it helped little as Notre Dame stormed out with an 18-8 surge including 3 treys from V.J. Beachem. The Wolfpack battled back and got within 10 with seven minutes on the clock, but another Notre Dame three ended that little run. By the time NC State got it down to 7 points, there was just over a minute left, and they were forced to foul. The Irish missed the first of a 1-and-1 and the fans thought their team had one last chance, but a turnover quickly dashed those dreams and the Irish raced back to Indiana with an 81-72 win.
This was a very fast-paced game as the officials didn't call many fouls (only 26 total). The first half took about 35 minutes and the game was over by 1:50, amazing for a noon start on ESPN. The difference was long-range shooting: Notre Dame was 13/30 while NC State could only muster 3 shots out of 14 attempts (they were 27/44 from inside the arc). Beachem was the star, going 7/12 from downtown and finishing with a game-high 27 points.
Duke beat Wake Forest 99-94 in the other contest. Maybe it would have been worth $500. But probably not.