Sunday, September 14, 2014

Euro 2016 Qualifying Road Trips

Soccer takes no vacation. That might explain why it is the most popular sport in the world, because fans never have a chance to follow another. The Premier League season goes from August to May and then there are major tournaments every second summer, not to mention the Olympics, the youth tourneys, and so many other matches that allow a true aficionado with a satellite dish to see a game nearly every day of the year. Point of fact: the World Cup just ended and already the Euro 2016 qualifiers are underway. There are 10 matchdays between September 2014 and October 2015, although the term matchday is a misnomer, as each one actually takes place over three consecutive days (except Matchday 5 which has a fourth day added when Belgium travels to Israel). The first matchday just finished, and an enterprising sports traveler could have seen Germany shutout Scotland in Dortmund on September 7, Switzerland lose to England in Basel on September 8, and then the Czech Republic beat the Netherlands in Prague on the following day. Those weren't the only options, Portugal, Spain, and Andorra also hosted fixtures on those same days. In fact, with at least 8 games each day, there are dozens of possible road trips that one could have taken.

What makes this even more intriguing though is that on three occasions, two matchdays will be held on consecutive three-day periods. For example, Matchday 2 is from October 9-11 and then Matchday 3 follows immediate from October 12-14. Here's one possible trip you could take next month:

Oct 9 : Spain at Slovakia (Zilina)
Oct 10: Croatia at Bulgaria (Sofia)
Oct 11: Germany at Poland (Warsaw)
Oct 12: England at Estonia (Tallinn)
Oct 13: Turkey at Latvia (Riga)
Oct 14: Portugal at Denmark (Copenhagen)

All games are in the evening, so you would have the day to fly or take the train to your next destination. This wouldn't be a cheap trip, but it would be fun. Obviously my new job precludes me from making this trek, but the same thing happens twice next year, when I will have saved up a few vacation days. Matchdays 7 and 8 take place from September 3-8 (Belgium, Gibraltar, Switzerland, Italy, Scotland, England is one possibility) and Matchdays 9 and 10 from October 8-13 (Portugal, Spain, Andorra, Serbia, Estonia, and Latvia all beckon). The great thing is that Europe is relatively small and cheap to get around, so you can pretty much see any of the matches each day, assuming reasonable flight connections. I'll keep an eye on the group standings and as the tournament progresses and venues are announced, will start looking into flights as well. Hope that I can make one of those two great trips in 2015!



Saturday, September 6, 2014

London Calling

During my 2013 NFL Road Trip, I saw games in all 32 stadiums (for the last time, Met Life Stadium counts twice). But I missed two venues in which an NFL game was played: Rogers Centre in Toronto and Wembley in London. This season, Buffalo is playing all 8 of their home games at Ralph Wilson Stadium so I won't be able to see an NFL game in Canada, but there are three games in London that have piqued my interest. Miami takes on Oakland on September 28, Atlanta plays Detroit on October 26, and Dallas will battle Jacksonville on November 9. All three happen to occur on weekends in which the Premier League has fixtures on the Saturday in London, and each weekend will also have  FA Cup matches (Second Round Qualifying, Fourth Round Qualifying First Round Proper respectively). Of course, you don't know the teams until the previous round is completed, so it is not possible to plan for those games, but there should be something in London on all 3 weekends. The question is which is the best weekend to go?

After much thought and schedule checking, I decided on the third game between the Jaguars and Cowboys. I'll fly overnight on Friday, arriving Saturday morning. This should give me enough time to see a 3:00 game at Fulham (now relegated to the Championship) and then a 5:30 contest with QPR hosting Man City. Even better, Tottenham has had their match against Stoke rescheduled to Sunday at 1:30 due to their commitments in the Europa League, so I'll get to see that before heading over to Wembley for the NFL game. Monday is open but I'm hoping for some FA Cup matches to be scheduled that day.

The full schedule:

Sat Nov 8 Huddersfield at Fulham 3:00
Sat Nov 8 Manchester City at Queens Park Rangers 5:30
Sun Nov 9 Stoke at Tottenham Spurs 1:30
Sun Nov 9 Dallas Cowboys vs Jacksonville Jaguars 6:00

As always, check back for recaps from each game.



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.



Monday, September 1, 2014

Mississippi Braves 6-2 at Huntsville Stars 2-6 (Southern League) - August 31, 2014

The whole reason I found myself in Alabama this past weekend was to see a game in Huntsville, whose AA Southern League franchise will move to Biloxi in 2015. Joe W. Davis Stadium will end its run as a minor league facility in the upcoming playoffs, but I couldn't plan for that, so I chose Labor Day weekend to fly down to pay my respects

Joe W. Davis Stadium

Opened to rave reviews in 1985, Joe W. Davis Municipal Stadium is named for a long-time mayor of Huntsville. It was once considered the best ballpark in the league, but as retro parks became the rage over the ensuing decades, "The Joe" fell further and further behind. Although some renovations were made in the intervening years, the park was unable to add critical amenities and attendance plummeted. In 1998, the Stars drew 4,044 per game but just 12 years later, the average was down to 1,404. On this night, the second last day of the regular season, only 924 showed up.

It makes no sense to write about the stadium in terms of a review, since it will no longer be in use once the Stars are eliminated from the playoffs. It is a bare bones facility with a few concessions. The dill pickle at $2 is the food bargain while $2 beers before first pitch were the highlight for the drinkers, especially with a 3-hour rain delay. There were no silly promotions between innings, just a chance to update the scorecard without loud music and enjoy the beauty of a old-time ballpark. It may sound strange calling a 1980s stadium "old-time", but this place reminded me of Nat Bailey Stadium (opened 1951) in Vancouver, which I visited often over 20 years ago. Back then, the game still was more important than the experience and that seems to be the way that the Stars approached things. These days, though, fans want more.

The picture below captures the sun setting over Joe W. Davis Stadium, both a literal and figurative interpretation of what transpired during my visit.

Huntsville, you will be missed on the minor league circuit. Good luck in the playoffs!

The Games

It was a doubleheader as Saturday's game was postponed, meaning I would see five games in just three days in Alabama.

The Mississippi Braves were visiting and they still had a chance to win the second-half Southern Division crown. Yes, the Southern League has a Southern Division. Anyway, Saturday's game was rained out, so I was fortunate to have a doubleheader, scheduled for 4 pm. I arrived about 30 minutes before and made my in, only to see the tarp on the field. It wasn't raining at the time, but shortly thereafter the skies opened and declared their reluctance to seeing the end of pro ball in Huntsville. I went back to my car to charge my phone and listen to the local radio. After a couple of hours, the rain stopped and the field was fixed up, with first pitch coming at 7:05.

Mississippi scored three in the first on three hits and two Huntsville errors that did not make starter Jed Bradley (15th overall from the Georgia Institute of Technology (GIT), 2011, below) very happy.

Williams Perez, a Bartolo Colon wannabe, got the start for the Braves and lasted all of two pitches. Nick Shaw (25th, 2010) lined one that hit Perez in the ankle and forced him out of the game (below).

Adding insult to injury, Shaw eventually scored an unearned run but emergency reliever Andrew Robinson (12th, 2010 by Houston, also from GIT) threw 3 strong innings, yielding not a single run of his own. Robinson even doubled and scored in the second as the Braves added to their lead. A homer from Barrett Kleinknecht (12th, 2010, 11 spots after Robinson) made it 5-1 and then a single by Daniel Castro (below) was followed by a triple from Braeden Schlehuber (4th, 2008) that salted the game away.

Bradley was replaced by Michael Strong (10th, 2011) who was making his AA debut and showed no signs of nervousness, walking 1 and striking out 6 in four hitless innings and winning the Player to Watch award. Huntsville managed a run but that was it as they fell 6-2 in a game that took 2:22, quite long for a 7-inning affair.

This pushed the start of the second game until after 10:00. It was also a 6-2 game, this time in Huntsville's favour. I didn't bother scoring as I had to leave to drive back to Atlanta to catch a 6:45 flight. It is about 3½ hours and one time zone over, so 12:30 was my limit if I was to make it to the airport by 5 a.m. Fortunately the game lasted just over 2 hours, finishing around 12:10. I made the drive back through rural Alabama during the early hours of September, and passed very few cars along the way. I never advise nighttime driving, because you miss the scenery and this is one case where I wish I could see what I was passing through. It was a tiring drive and as soon as I boarded the plane I nodded off, waking up as we landed in New York. It was a bit surreal to have been in Huntsville just 8 hours before flying past Manhattan.


Nick Ramirez (above) played first for Huntsville and will be off to the Arizona Fall League next month. Ramirez played for Team USA in Japan and was the losing pitcher in the gold medal game.

Mississippi ended up finishing just out of the playoffs, a game behind Jacksonville who ended the season on a 10-0 streak.

Next Up

A quiet month ahead as I only have to return to Buffalo to make amends for calling Bills fans the drunkest. Before that though, I plan to write a few items on all the problems with sports, so keep checking back regularly as I get older and grumpier.



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.


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.



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.


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.