Monday, April 6, 2009

USC Trojans 6 at Arizona Wildcats 7 (NCAA Baseball, Pac 12) - April 3, 2009

After visiting the Pima Air and Space Museum, I headed over to the University of Arizona campus. I was hoping to see one of their free museums before checking out the Wildcats take on the USC Trojans in a baseball game.

A rare visit to a college game

Growing up in Canada in the 70s and 80s, it was very difficult to become a fan of NCAA sports. In those days, there wasn't the wall-to-wall television coverage that exists today, but even more importantly, I think you need to go to a school in the US to become seriously involved in the hype that surrounds the college game. I also don't agree with the way the NCAA is run, essentially exploiting student-athletes for incredible amounts of money, at least in football and basketball. It's true that some of that money is used to support other, less popular sports, but it still baffles me that John Calipari can joke about his $4 million dollar salary to coach kids that see not a dime. It's pretty much impossible to avoid college sports these days, so I do watch the big matchups, but it is without any passion.

As such, I generally avoid going to NCAA games on my road trips. Basketball and football tickets are usually expensive and difficult to find. But I think that in the past year, I've found a more acceptable way to add NCAA sports to my travel schedule: see the less popular games and sports. In November, I saw a basketball game at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. They hosted North Dakota State University, and were defeated in a game that was played in a small gym with movable benches (not the Walkup Skydome as shown in the recap). It was a great experience, but I didn't think much more of it until I saw that NDSU made the tournament as a 14-seed (losing to Kansas in the first round) and Ben Woodside may be drafted by the NBA (update: he wasn't). I've always enjoyed watching athletes before they are famous, which is why I enjoy minor-league baseball so much, but now I could see how the less popular college sports and programs may still have their own hidden stars.

So when I returned to Arizona, I checked the schedules of both Arizona and Arizona State athletics and found that the Wildcats would be at home for a baseball game against USC. Although neither program is particularly strong this year, it would give me a chance to see the campus and add another ballpark to my list, and even perhaps see a future MLB star.

Back on campus

The U of A campus lies in the northwest section of Tuscon, spread out through several square blocks of surface streets. There is a small visitor center where you can pick up a map and guidebook. I parked in a lot (good luck finding free parking!) and wandered around. It was a bit strange being on a college campus again, but it wasn't that busy, so perhaps classes are over. But I enjoyed the atmosphere there and would guess that this university is a very interesting place to go.

Batting practice

The ball game didn't start till 7, so after waiting until 5 to park for free (all permit lots are free after 5 pm) I headed over to the stadium. Or field. It's called Jerry Kindall Field at Frank Sancet Stadium as they honour two long-time coaches who established Arizona as a baseball school. It's a bit verbose, but far better than the corporate names that adorn pro stadiums. The picture below shows the other retired numbers, including current Red Sox manager Terry Francona.

The gates were already open, but there was nobody selling tickets. I could hear the clinks of the aluminum bats so I decided to check out batting practice. There were a few scouts there, but nobody gave me a second glance, so I found a seat and just sat back. Unfortunately, the weather was not pleasant, with a constant, strong wind blowing from right to left, bringing plenty of sand and dust with it. I watched as the crowd gradually filled the stadium, and was interested to notice that there were plenty of USC fans who had made the trip. As well, the Arizona student community was well-represented, surprising on a Friday evening.

Never Leave Early

The game itself was fairly routine for the first several innings. The wind had died down at first pitch, but was picking up midway through the game. Wildcat rightfielder Bobby Coyle dropped a fly ball that allowed the Trojans to score 3 in the 5th to take a 4-2 lead. In the 7th, Trojan catcher Robert Stock hit a wind-aided triple that scored a run, and he later scored to make it 6-2 Trojans. Meanwhile USC starter Brad Boxberger was solid through 7, scattering 5 hits. I noticed that most of the Arizona fans were leaving, it certainly seemed like the game was over and it was Friday night, after all.

But they were to miss a great finish. Boxberger allowed the first two runners to reach on a hit batsman and walk before being replaced by Daniel Cooper. After a strikeout, Cooper gave up a huge triple to Dillon Baird, who scored himself on a wild pitch. Suddenly it was 6-5. USC couldn't add to their lead in the 9th, and they moved Stock from catcher to pitcher to close things out. I was suprised at this move, thinking that Stock would be tired from a day of crouching, and he looked a bit fatigued in walking the leadoff man. After a sacrifice, Jett Bandy pinch hit and popped up. But the wind was to play a part in the outcome of this game; the ball zigged and zagged on the way down, falling between 4 converging infielders for a single.

A hit batsman (one of 5 on the evening) loaded the bases, but Hunter Pace struck out, brining up Brad Glenn. There wasn't much time for anticipation though as Glenn smoked the first pitch he saw into left field. Bandy rounded third and headed for home, and the throw in was way off-line. The Wildcats win! I was certainly glad to have stayed despite the weather and see a very memorable game.

Check the scoreboard to see why they are celebrating!

A few things about this game that surprised me. Wildcats starter Preston Guilmet threw 129 pitches, and Boxberger threw 118. I thought that was a lot of pitches for young hurlers, but now I'm wondering if things are different in the NCAA than in the minors, where you rarely see a pitcher throw over 110 pitches.

The other thing is the use of aluminum bats. Because of the increased danger to fans, the fence stretches much further down the baselines. I prefer seeing games without a screen in front of me, but there weren't any good seats with this option. I'd like to see aluminum bats eliminated from the college game; they don't sound right, and I question statistics that are the result of aluminum bats.

Wildcat players walk from the dressing room across the street
Thirst Re-busted

After the game in Tucson the day before, I received a free coupon for a 44oz Thirst Buster at Circle K. Perhaps this product should be renamed the Bladder Buster, but when on these trips, all free items are gladly received, so I didn't complain. So I picked one up for lunch.

Well, the Arizona Wildcats have the same promotion: 10 strikeouts for a free Thirst Buster. Naturally, they struck out 12 Trojans, so I had 44 more ounces of Coke to enjoy on the drive back to Phoenix.

I suspect I need to re-examine my thinking. What is the point of getting something for free that you would never consider buying in the first place?! Well, at least I won't be thirsty for several days.



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