Friday, April 30, 2010

Arizona State Sundevils 5 at UCLA Bruins 1 (NCAA Baseball, Pac 12) - April 30, 2010




I'd seen the Dodgers and Pirates in a snoozer the night before and wanted to avoid another expensive evening, so I headed to the west side to catch some NCAA baseball. The #3-ranked Arizona State Sun Devils (35-5) were in town to start a 3-game set against #5 UCLA (30-7).

Jackie Robinson Stadium

The ballpark is located west of the UCLA campus on Constitution Avenue. Take the Wilshire exit off the 405 and go north on Sepulveda one block, then left at Constitution. There's a $5 fee for parking, and tickets are $7 with a $2 discount for AAA members. UCLA baseball has not been historically popular, but this year they are highly ranked and games are suddenly a hot ticket, so get there early to get a parking spot.


The stadium itself is quite small with about 1600 seats that only stretch partway to the bases. All seats are protected here, which makes sense as college ball uses aluminum bats. There's also a couple of recently-added bleacher sections higher up to help with the overflow crowds. Tickets are general admission, so again an early arrival is recommended as it was quite full by game time.

It's 330 down the lines and 395 to center, but the ball doesn't carry well here, at least in the evening games. There were at least two hits that I thought would be home runs, but both were caught at the wall. Just beyond the right field fence is the 405 and you can watch the traffic zooming by (or crawling if it's rush hour) during the inning breaks.

Three banners for ex-Bruins who made the majors (Todd Zeile, Eric Karros, Garrett Atkins) are present but that is about the only history here. There is a statue of Jackie Robinson (below) next to the marketing table, which is where you can get a free copy of the program.


The Game

The UCLA site has a good recap and box score if you are interested. The Bruins' starter was Gerrit Cole who was the Yankees 1st-round pick in 2008 but chose college instead. He was 6th in the country with a 12.42 K/9 ratio. He throws fast with a nasty curve, but had minor control issues, walking 4 in his 6 innings. He certainly let the umpire get to him early when a couple of close pitches were called balls instead of strike 3. The umpire was somewhat inconsistent, but Cole needs to focus on himself rather than the call. To his credit, he settled down and struck out 9 but was the hard-luck loser as his offense couldn't score but a single run, shown below as Blair Dunlap scored when Dean Espy grounded into a double play.

Dean Espy grounds into a double play...

Dunlap scores the first run of the game

ASU's Zack MacPhee (below) came in hitting .440 (16th in the nation) but could only muster a single in 5 trips.


This is my second NCAA game and I like that they allow the pitchers to throw. Cole tossed 124 pitches before being removed while Seth Blair hurled 113 for ASU. But neither pitcher had great control and the game stretched over 3 hours. The weather was wonderful though, so I didn't mind. It wasn't a great game but it was a lot of fun. The place was full of scouts and I'm sure a few of these guys will be drafted in June. I'll try to follow the draft and see who goes where. Perhaps I'll see one of these guys in a minor-league game down the road.

Next Up

I'm writing this from my hotel near LAX as I'm flying to London in a few hours. I'm hoping to see an EPL game with West Ham in Fulham after I land but the hotel I originally expected to stay in (close to Fulham) has been changed to one quite far away, so I'm not sure if I'll make it. Check back next week to see what happened.

Best,

Sean

Pittsburgh Pirates 2 at Los Angeles Dodgers 0 - April 29, 2010


When I do these roadtrips, I usually pick a few games that I am interested in and then fill up the empty days with nearby events. Sometimes I am lucky and get some classic matchups such as the NBA games in January, but other times I end up at a game that I wouldn't be too interested in otherwise. Such was the case yesterday when the 9-12 Pittsburgh Pirates were in town to take on the 8-13 LA Dodgers. I was so excited about this game that I forgot to recharge my camera battery, so there's no pics.

Dodger Stadium

Located at the confluence of the 101, 110, and I-5 freeways, the stadium is the 3rd oldest in MLB, having been opened in 1962.

Parking is $15 but there is free parking along Academy Road just north of the stadium. The LA Police Academy is here, so it is safe and about a 15-minute walk to the gates.

There are 4 distinct seating sections in the main bowl; field level, loge, reserve, and top deck. Each level has its own colour of seats, although they are fading after so many years in the sun. There are many seating options so I won't go into them. I would suggest that you avoid getting tickets at the box office on game day as they go up in price; I was able to find a ticket online for half-price. Which leads me to the pricing here. I had a great seat, 4th row in field level section 12. But there is another section known as Dugout Box which has 10 rows in front of the field level section. My seat had a face value of $120 which goes to $130 on game day. That's ridiculous, even at half-price it is too expensive for 14 rows from the field, even just off the plate.

There's also two outfield pavilions, one of which is all-you-can-eat. Avoid that unless you want to be disgusted. I didn't eat here myself although Dodger Dogs are the most famous food in MLB.

I really like Dodger Stadium. Yeah, they've raised their prices way too high, especially if they continue to play like this, but it's unique, seems the same as it did 20 years ago when I first visited, and doesn't blast loud music during the inning breaks. Fans come late and leave early, but that means more room for me. I enjoyed just sitting back and watching the game without distractions. Definitely worth a visit if you've yet to be here.

The Game

I thought I was in Candlestick Park as the game got underway; it was very windy and cold. According to the radio broadcast after the game, this sort of weather is quite rare in Dodger Stadium, yet another reason to have stayed home.

Clayton Kershaw, who led the league in average against in 2009 (.200), started for LA while Brian Burres was recalled from AAA Indianapolis to make a spot start for the Pirates.

Kershaw was wild to start, walking the first two batters before striking out the next two. Ryan Doumit then stroked one to center that skipped by Matt Kemp all the way to the wall. Both runners scored and Doumit ended up on third with a triple. I thought an error was due to Kemp, but both runs were earned.

As it turned out, that was all the scoring. Burres lasted 5 1/3 giving up 4 hits and 4 walks and Jack Taschner and Evan Meek were perfect, retiring the last 11 batters in a row to preserve the 2-0 victory. It was Meek's 1st major league save, so perhaps he's making a claim for the Pirates' closer role.

This game was dull but not in the way I expected. I figured the Dodgers would break out of their slump against the pathetic Pirates pitching and win in a blowout, but the opposite happened. LA never threatened though, getting only 3 runners to third base, and there was no excitement after the top of the first. It lasted 2:51, far too long for a 2-0 game.

Notes

Blake DeWitt was creamed by a foul ball off the bat of Russell Martin in the 3rd. DeWitt was on third base when Martin crushed the ball right at him. There was no time to move and the ball hit him squarely on the thigh. But he walked it off and stayed in the game. It was a reminder as to why you stand in foul territory when you are on third; DeWitt would have been out if he had been in fair territory.

Attendance was 40,185 according to MLB.com but there were maybe half that in the stadium. Would be nice if they counted gate attendance rather than tickets sold (or even better, both numbers were announced - would be nice to know how many weather wimps there are in LA).

With two out in the bottom of the 9th and two strikes on Ronnie Belliard, a fan jumped on the field and raced to center field where he was finally tackled. Idiot. He wasted 2 minutes of my time as well as everyone else there. I think he punishment should be equal to the number of total minutes wasted. That would be 80,370 minutes, or nearly 56 days. I think if they publicized that he got nearly 2 months in jail, we might see less of this annoying behavior.

Next Up

Tonight I'm planning to go to UCLA to check out a baseball game with Arizona State visiting.
Tomorrow I fly to London for a relaxing two weeks. I won't be watching much sports there, but am hoping to catch an EPL game on Sunday and some cricket action at Lord's mid-week. Updates will be spotty but check back occasionally.

Best,

Sean

Thursday, April 29, 2010

California League Doubleheader - Two Ballparks, Long Wait - April 28, 2010


One of the great joys of a sports road trip is the early morning minor league game. These are scheduled to give school kids a chance to attend and perhaps build some brand loyalty. The good side is that the game is over by 1pm, so you have the afternoon and evening to tour. But the best thing though is when there is an evening game close by; there's nothing better than two games in two stadiums on the same day. So it was with great anticipation that I headed out yesterday for a 10:30 am game in Rancho Cucamonga with a 7:05 tilt in nearby San Bernardino for the nightcap.

Game 1 - Visalia Rawhide 7 at Rancho Cucamonga Quakes 1

The Epicenter

The Quakes play at the Epicenter, a cute connection until the Big One hits I guess. The Epicenter is considered more than just a ballpark; it is labelled as a Entertainment and Sports Complex and hosts concerts among other events. Located just off Rochester Avenue south of Foothill Blvd and easily accessible from I-15, the ballpark is surrounded by 3 smaller softball fields which lay empty on this morning. Parking is $4 although there seemed to an additional lot across Rochester which looked to be free. I only noticed this on the way out so didn't know if it was opened for the game. Either way, the parking lot is a couple of minutes from the entrance, so there is no foul ball danger here.


The stadium itself is designed more like an arts center, with an all-white granite exterior with dark windows on the upper level. There are tall palm trees around the one central entrance. Inside there are your typical features: banners of Quakes who have made the majors (the Angels are the MLB team); a Quakes Hall of Fame, and starting lineups.


There are four seating options, but unfortunately there is netting above the dugout here too, so the upper club section is preferred as it allows a clear view of the field. In fact, the netting extends quite a way down the line, so even lower seats past first base are "protected". Get row F or above if you want to sit in the Field Box seats past the bases. In the picture below you can see the netting extending well down the lines.



In each outfield corner there are cafes which are used for parties. As this was an early game, they were quite empty, as was the whole stadium for that matter, with a total attendance of just 862, mostly rambunctious kids.

Measurements are 330 down the lines and 401 to center although the 401 number was shown twice so perhaps the actual distance to center is slightly further. There are two scoreboards, one is a larger linescore board with a video screen above it while the other shows the R/H/E line and also includes the pitch speed.

There are three retired numbers: 42 for Jackie Robinson; 26 for the Fans; and 20 for Matt LaChappa, a 2nd-round pick who suffered a heart attack in the bullpen back in 1996. If you are getting cynical and tired of all the crap in sports, this story about LaChappa from 2006 should help you remember that there is plenty of good in the game.

Overall, this stadium is nice but suffers from too much protective netting, reducing the number of good seats significantly. Furthermore, the Quakes have two mascots: Tremor and Aftershock. Unfortunately, their main job seemed to be standing on the dugout blocking my view as you can see below. Hey guys, there's 700 kids in the stands, go sign autographs and get outta my way!


The Game


Ryan Cook, the 27th round pick of Arizona in 2008 started for Visalia while the Quakes sent undrafted Dominican prospect Manaurys Correa (above) to the hill. First pitch was at 10:39 am. Heaven.

In the top of the second, Visalia's Marc Krauss (2nd, 2009) hit a deep fly to center seemed uncatchable, but Tyson Auer ran it down, only to have it fall out of his glove. It was correctly ruled a double, but the next play was doubtless an error. Kyle Greene (11th, 2008) grounded to second but it was bobbled by Ivan Contreras to put runners on the corners with one out. Two singles and an RBI groundout made it 3-0 Rawhide.

Alexi Amarista fouls one off

Angel Castillo got one back in the bottom of the 2nd with a solo shot but that was it until the 9th inning as both starters settled down. Cook was particularly impressive, going 6 strong with 5 strikeouts and only 1 walk. Correa finished 7 innings giving up only the 1 earned run but his offense couldn't help him out. Chris Scholl (8th, 2008) took over and gave up 4 runs in the 9th, including a 2-run triple to Rey Navarro (3rd, 2007). Rancho Cucamonga went quietly in the 9th and the Rawhide won 7-1.

Ryan Wheeler (5th, 2009) grounds to third here

Each team committed 3 errors as I guess the players aren't used to the early start. The game took 2:13, which was too short. I now had nearly 7 hours to kill before the next game in San Bernardino, just 15 miles away.


Player to Watch

Navarro was going to get this award after a 2-5 day including the 2-run triple, but he committed an error in the bottom of the ninth and thus was eliminated from contention. Hey, I'm harsh!

So the winner is Rancho Cucamonga catcher Roberto Lopez (25th, 2008), who made two outs at the plate, taking a solid hit both times but holding on to the ball and looking none the worse for wear. He was 1-4 at the plate with a long double. Lopez is really a utility player who spent 4 years at USC before tearing up the Pioneer League in 2008. Let's see if he can make the Angels in the next few years.

Between Games

The first stop was In-N-Out for a Double Double. Yum. But I couldn't spend 6 hours there, so I then drove along Foothill Blvd towards San Bernardino, where the Inland Empire 66ers play.

San Bernardino is the county seat for San Bernardino County, the largest county by area in the continental U.S. The Inland Empire is the name for the entire region that includes San Bernardino County as well as Riverside County to the south. It might be most famous for a recent David Lynch movie, but Death Valley National Park is also part of the area. Rancho Cucamonga is among the cities located here, and the team based in San Bernardino used to use the city name, going by the Stampede before changing to the Inland Empire 66ers in 2o03.

Foothill Blvd is part of historic Route 66, but it has seen better days. I noticed dozens of businesses that were closed; I'm not sure if they were a victim of the recent recession or from before. I did pass the Wigwam Motel which might be worth a night's stay next time I am in town.

I arrived in San Bernardino around 2:30, so had to spend 3 hours looking around before I could go to the game. I tried visiting a mall to do some shopping but perhaps only 30% of the stores were open. Even the barber was desperate for business, shouting out "Haircuts, haircuts here" as I walked by. I wonder how many people are going to suddenly think "Now that he mentions it, I could use a little trim". Bizarre and a little sad.

The only point of interest I noticed here was the McDonald's Museum as San Bernardino is the home of the first ever McDonald's restaurant opened in 1940. I am not a big fan of corporate advertising masquerading as tourist attractions so I didn't visit, but it turns out it's operated independently of the corporation. I'll have to check it out next time as it is free.

By now it was close to 4:00 so I went looking for a place where I could catch some of the Capitals-Canadiens game 7, but couldn't find anything remotely close to a sports bar. I had even done some research but the places I wrote down were all out of business. I resigned myself to grabbing a Coke at McDonald's and waiting until 5:30 when I could drive to the park.

This area does seem to be suffering significantly from the recession. The downtown area was devoid of any life, although this was a Wednesday afternoon, not exactly party time. San Bernardino seemed to be more a government center than a tourist spot although I am partly to blame for not preparing properly.

Game 2 - Lake Elsinore Storm at Inland Empire 66ers

Arrowhead Credit Union Park

Located between E and G Streets just south of Rialto Avenue, the park was built in 1996 and originally known as the Ranch to maintain the western theme as the team was the Stampede. The motif remains western though, with deep gold walls and light brown trim. There are three arches at the main entrance which are now ruined by a rather unattractive sign promoting the sponsor.


Parking here is $4 when you enter off G Street. There is also an entrance off E Street for the administrative offices but that seems to be blocked off for game parking.

Once inside, there's a sign labelled Route of Champions that shows the distance from San Bernardino to the other Dodger affiliates. This is a good idea and should be added to all the parks to increase awareness of minor league ball. Other typical features such as lineups and 66ers made good are here. There are also extensive game notes for $1 that complement the free program.

The best thing about this park is the absence of netting above the dugout. I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but the sign below is much better, although they should probably repaint the P.


I bought a seat above the dugout for $10 but there are $6 tickets and you can sit pretty much anywhere. The seats down the lines are angled towards home plate but few people were sitting that far away.

There are some nice mountain views over center field although it was hazy yesterday. You can see the LA sign behind home plate to remind you this is a Dodgers' affiliate.


The scoreboard is also quite impressive, the video screen must be the largest in A ball and it is good quality. They even show the entire batting lineup as you can see in the picture below.


It's 410 feet to center but there were no measurements down the line. There are 4 retired numbers including Ken Griffey Jr's 24 and Chin-Feng Chen's 43. Chen was the first Taiwanese to play in MLB, but before that he belted 31 homers for San Bernardino in 1999.

The Game

It was already cold when the Dodgers' 2008 1st-rounder (15th overall) Ethan Martin threw the first pitch at 7:05. Drew Cumberland (1st, 46th overall, 2007) promptly tripled and scored on a wild pitch. Cody Decker (22nd, 2009) doubled and Allan Dykstra, the Padres' 1st-round pick (23rd overall) in 2008, singled him home for a quick 2-0 lead.

In the top of the 2nd Joe Agreste tripled with one out. After Danny Payne struck out, Martin threw a wild pitch to Cumberland. Agreste raced for home but the ball didn't bounce far away and he was tagged out by Martin on the throw from catcher Tony Delmonico (6th, 2008, shown striking out below).


Lake Elsinore added to their lead when Cole Figueroa (6th, 2008) walked and was balked to second by Martin. Vince Belnome (28th, 2009) singled him home for a 3-0 lead.

In the 5th, Cumberland singled, stole twice, and scored again on a wild pitch, Martin's third of the night. A sacrifice fly by Australia native Michael Collins who has WBC experience and is shown below made it 5-0 and spelled the end for Martin.


Meanwhile, Storm starter Jorge Reyes was able to work out of jams, stranding 7 runners in his 5 frames without giving up a run. Inland Empire managed 2 runs on a Clay Calfee (14th, 2008) double in the 8th but that was all they would get and the final was 5-2 Lake Elsinore.

This game was rather ho-hum. The 66ers had 10 hits and 4 walks but left runners in all but one inning. The tying run did come to the plate in the 9th but Steven Caseres (9th, 2008) grounded out to closer Brad Brach (42nd, 2008) who notched his 8th save to lead the league.

Player to Watch

I gave the award to Storm shortstop Drew Cumberland who tripled, singled, stole two bases, scored on two wild pitches and played solid defense including snaring a line drive to start a 6-4 double play. Turns out he was the Padres' 1st-round pick 3 years ago. Given he is still in A-ball, he might not be progressing that well although his stats seem pretty good. Several players from that draft (notably Rays' starter David Price) already have MLB experience while others are in AAA. Still, this award is given without prior knowledge of the players, so let's see if I actually know anything about baseball.

Notes

The team store at Inland Empire had a poster showing the hat designs for all 160 minor league teams. I inquired as to its availability but was told it was not for sale. That's too bad, as it would look good in the apartment back home. I did a quick count and it appears as if I've been to 76 of the teams, which means 84 still to go. Many of the teams I've visited in the past are no longer active, so I don't have a total count of minor league parks visited.

I've started adding the draft position and year for the players I mention. I think it helps to see how long the player has been in the organization as well as where he was drafted. First-round picks are also given their overall spot, while players with no information were undrafted.

The 66ers' pitching coach is Charlie Hough, known for his knuckleball and very long career, which finished with a 216-216 record. That's him below returning to the dugout after a chat with Martin early in the game.


These two games were quite the contrast in attendances. The morning game was about 75% children, so each foul ball was followed by screaming kids racing along the empty rows looking for the souvenir. The nightcap was cold and had few kids, so foul balls were generally left alone and the park was much quieter except for the occasional drunk guy yapping at the visiting players.

The people next to me were Lake Elsinore supporters and we were sitting in the first row behind the dugout. At one point they tossed them a ball but they dropped it and it rolled to me. I took it and offered it back but they didn't want it so I've now got a Cal League baseball to add to the collection.

Next Up

The Pirates are in Los Angeles to take on the Dodgers tonight. LA is struggling and are returning after having been swept in New York, and Pittsburgh is just Pittsburgh, so this game isn't one rife with anticipation. But Dodger Stadium is always a nice place to visit, so check back here for a recap tomorrow.

Best,

Sean

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Oklahoma City Thunder 87 at Los Angeles Lakers 111 - Western Conference QF Game 5 - April 27, 2010


Sports media are notorious for a "one-day story" mentality. Take the Los Angeles Lakers for example. They only won the NBA championship last season and finished first in the West this season. But they dropped a couple of playoff games to 8th seed Oklahoma City, including a blowout in game 4, and suddenly they are "finished". All around LA I heard talk of how the Thunder were younger and faster and the Lakers were old and tired. An ESPN poll (always reliable) even showed that many fans were predicting a Thunder win. Bah. Never bet against a defending champion.

The bright side to this sudden change in attitude: tickets for game 5 at the Staples Center were easy to get. There were box office singles in the lower bowl for $350 (ha!), but I stood outside and found a guy whose cousin couldn't make it. He had an upper bowl ticket with a face value of $65. He wanted $80, I offered him $60 and he took it. I probably could have waited longer to save a few more bucks, but it was close to game time and I wanted to see the pre-game.

The seat was in the corner, just one row from the top, so I didn't spend much time taking pictures. The picture below is from the first row of my section.


Hockey vs Basketball Atmosphere

I mentioned that the feeling outside of Staples before the Kings' game was fairly quiet. It was similar today, but in a different way. The Kings' fans knew that they were going to lose, and they were OK with it, as the team seems to be on the rise. But the Lakers' fans seemed worried - could it be possible that they would lose a first-round series? There were far more Lakers' fans too, and almost no Thunder jerseys visible. The only two I saw belonged to the parents of Russell Westbrook.

Inside the stadium though, the tension was less noticeable. Fans were loud as the introductions were made, booing vociferously the Thunder players and cheering their hometown heroes. I was impressed with this display as I'd heard bad things about the fans here. In particular, the upper bowl fans seem to consider the lower bowl spectators to be poor imitations - they arrive late, leave early, spend half the game on their phone, etc. But the fans were rowdy from tip-off - I read later that the Oklahoma City fans were so loud that the Lakers asked their own fans to be more vocal. Seems like it worked.

The pre-game was kind of neat. When the players ran out they lowered a large curtain and played images across it for a couple of minutes (below). The anthem was also loudly cheered and then it was time for some NBA playoff basketball!


The Game

Opening Tip

Not much to tell here. This one was over after about 3 minutes. The Lakers came out on fire and when Andrew Bynum completed an alley-oop from Kobe Bryant to make it 6-0, the game was done. I know it sounds strange to say that a basketball game was over just 2:38 into it, but the Thunder were 0-6 from the field and the Lakers were clearly in a groove at both ends of the floor. Bynum added two more dunks and the Lakers had a 14-1 lead at the midway point of the quarter as Oklahoma City missed their first 13 shots.

Pau Gasol missed here early in the first

The rest of the half was slightly closer as the Thunder managed a few shots but it ended 55-34 for LA. The Lakers shot 65% compared to 26% for Oklahoma City and won the assist battle 15-5.

The third quarter was more Lakers who entered the fourth up 88-60. It was garbage time when Adam Morrison checked in for LA and the bench players for both squads finished up with the final score 111-87. It was a complete rout and I'd say the Thunder will have a hard time rebounding from this one in game 6.

Pau Gasol led the Lakers with 25 points and 11 boards, while Kevin Durant potted 17 to top the Thunder.

Notes

By winning the game and holding the opposition to under 100 points, the Lakers enabled all fans to receive two free tacos from Jack in the Box. Not sure I'll have time to try them though.

Lots of stars in attendance - Hugh Hefner was shown in a luxury box on the Kiss Cam and kissed both his dates much to the delight of the crowd. Other celebs included Dustin Hoffman, Eddie Murphy, Seal, and Will Ferrell. Naturally, Jack was in his usual seat.

The City View Diner on the upper concourse offers an outdoor bar where you can look across at the Nokia Plaza and further to downtown. It would be nice on a warm day but today was chilly by LA standards. The picture below is from there.


Next Up

Two ballgames tomorrow - a 10:30 start in Rancho Cucamonga and then a 7:00 game in nearby San Bernadino. In between, I'm hoping to find a sports bar and watch a couple of periods of the Capitals-Canadiens game 7. Check back tomorrow for updates.

Best,

Sean

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

High Desert Mavericks 2 at Lancaster Jethawks 6 - April 26, 2010


Minor league baseball is my favourite road trip sport. There are 160 teams in affiliated ball and with games nearly every day, it's easy to plan a trip in almost any area of the country. Tickets are cheap, you can sit where you want, and you often to get to places that you'd never stop in otherwise. So it was with some chagrin that I realized that last year I only saw one full minor league game, in Colorado Springs. I did see a few innings in Manchester but rain forced an early finish, and then the Connecticut date was postponed due to a wet field. So it had been over a year since I had enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere that marks these affairs. Fortunately that travesty ended yesterday as I drove up to Lancaster to watch a California League game between the Jethawks and the High Desert Mavericks.

The Drive

The city of Lancaster is in the Antelope Valley, about 70 miles north of Los Angeles. Google Maps suggested a circuitous route from my hotel near Pasadena that would take I-210 west all the way west to I-5 before reversing onto the State Route 14, which is the main thoroughfare in the valley. It was about 75 miles, but I noticed a shorter route through Angeles National Forest that would likely be more scenic.

I planned to take that route on the way there but as I headed west on I-210, there was a sign saying that the Angeles Crest Highway was closed. Crap. I had studied the alternate route so I wasn't too worried, but I knew that I'd hit rush hour traffic and sure enough, where the I-210, I-5, and 14 all meet there was a huge jam. It was amazing just how many cars were making their way north on I-5, but once I got on the 14, it cleared up and it was smooth the rest of the way.

The highway is known as the Antelope Valley Freeway as it winds northeast through the Forest before turning north, passing through Palmdale and Lancaster. It then becomes the Aerospace Highway as it runs past Edwards Air Force Base continuing north to Mojave and beyond. It's a reasonably scenic drive for a freeway but can be quite crowded during rush hours.

Clear Channel Stadium

Built in 1996 and originally known as Lancaster Municipal Stadium, the ballpark is located next to the Avenue I exit off Highway 14. The stadium is nicknamed The Hangar and is notable for a NASA F/A 18-Hornet out front in honour of the base nearby.


Parking is $5 but comes with a $2 discount off a concession purchase of $5 or more, which is a nice touch.


The stadium is built in the desert motif with sand-colored walls and brown and green trim. When you enter, you are offered a free program which has some useful info on the up-and-coming Jethawk prospects. There are a number of small displays inside, including the starting lineups, standings, and a list of players who have made the majors. There's also several Jethawks Hall of Fame plaques honouring former players and managers. Check out the standings below - Lancaster is in last place but I guess they don't want to acknowledge it as the team name is missing.


I bought a first-row seat over the home dugout for $9 but was disappointed to see that they had put up a small netting to protect the lower seats. This ruined the view as you can see in the photo below.


I'll write more about in a later section, but I ended up moving around the stadium anyway, so it wasn't much of a problem. If you want to avoid the netting, get a cheap reserved seat. The picture below shows the view from section 119 down third base, looking into the visitor's dugout. These seats also slant in a bit so you don't have to turn your head to watch the pitcher.


The field is huge with the fence 350 feet down the lines and 410 at center. I guess the ball must carry here in the dry air. The scoreboard is manually operated, but there's also a video board which shows stats and promos, with space shuttles on either side (Edwards is where the shuttle often lands). You can see it in the photo below beyond the left-field fence.


There were a lot of food choices here, including a Mexican stand behind first base. I opted for a spicy chicken sandwich which was not spicy, although I am reasonably confident that it was chicken.

I really enjoyed this ballpark despite the netting. The promos were not bothersome, it wasn't that loud, and the fans were cheerful. Staff was also helpful; when I ordered a pop, it took about 5 minutes to get a soda as the machine wasn't working; they had me taste one cup that was too watery before they got it fixed and also offered me free popcorn while I waited. It seems like the management here puts some thought into make this a family-friendly experience and I hope to return.

The Game


Lancaster's starter was Dallas Keuchel (pronounced Kikel, shown above), who appeared in the 2009 College World Series with Arkansas and was Houston's 7th-round pick in the subsequent draft. He was opposed by Andrew Carraway, Seattle's 12th-round pick in the same draft who had yet to lose in 9 minor league decisions.

Keuchel was sharp, giving up 3 singles through 5 innings, but Carraway wasn't so fortunate. After a scoreless first, he gave up two runs in the second, highlighted by a double from Brandon Barnes. Two singles and a stolen base led to another Jethawk run in the third. The fourth inning seemed to typify Carraway's outing. After two quick outs, he gave up a seeing-eye single to Josh Flores and promptly balked him over. Jay Austin then followed with a blooper that fell in to score Flores. After Austin stole second, Brandon Wikoff then blooped another one that scored Austin to make it 5-0. Wikoff was picked off to end the inning and Carraway's evening.

High Desert's Scott Savastano with the scoop

In the 6th, Keuchel gave up an RBI-triple to Nate Tenbrink (fouling one off below), who scored on a ground out, but that was his only damage in 7 strong innings. David Berner tossed two perfect innings for the save as Lancaster won 6-2.


The game time was 2:11, which was amazing considering the first four innings took 1:20. Once Carraway was taken out, the Maverick relievers worked quickly and Keuchel and Berner were efficient as well.

Keuchel gets my new, coveted "Player to Watch" award. Whenever I go to a minor league game, I'll name one player who caught my eye. I'll try to follow him and let you know if he's in the majors a few years hence. Of course, one game is not enough to accurately know how a player will fare as time passes, but it will be fun to watch.

Anyway, Keuchel was efficient, giving up just 6 hits and no walks, requiring just 89 pitches in his 7 frames. It was his first win of the season. Carraway suffered his first minor-league loss.


The game ended at 9:15. Once I had finished filling out my scorecard, I snapped a picture of the scoreboard - but they had already removed the run totals! They work quick in Lancaster. One other note: the game started at 7:04, but the official boxscore said the game time was 2:13. I was timing it myself using a stopwatch and it was definitely 2:10:55 (excuse the precision). I wonder how they can add two minutes out of nowhere, but I suspect nobody else is paying attention.

Notes

It was Feed your Face Monday, where you could get a reserved seat for $10 that came with unlimited hot dogs, hamburgers, popcorn and other food. You could also buy the unlimited food package for $8 with another ticket, but I resisted the temptation.

Another food promotion was the In N Out Double Double batter. One Jethawk was designated with this title and if he doubled during the game, all fans in a lucky section would win an In N Out Double Double burger. If you read this blog, you know this is the best possible prize in the world but the batter in this game, David Flores, could not deliver. Instead, he homered in his final at-bat, shown below.


Not that it mattered, I wasn't in the lucky section anyway.

There were a couple of other promotions that caught my eye. One was pretty lame, it was a spelling bee where the contestant, about 10 years old, had to spell "home run". Even the kid was "Like man, you are so insulting my intelligence" as he recited the letters. Pretty funny.

The other was allowing kids under 12 to run across the field during an inning break. You can see the mascot Ka-boom in the shot below. Looks like fun.


By my reckoning (admittedly I miss a pitch or two on occasion), both teams had identical pitch counts: 34 balls, 79 strikes, and 113 total pitches. The minor league box scores don't show pitch counts, so I'll never know if this was actually true or not but I found it a neat coincidence.

Another statistical oddity. Not only were there no walks, there were no hit batsmen, sacrifice bunts, sacrifice flies, or catcher's interference. So every plate appearance resulted in an at-bat; this is quite unusual especially in the minors where walks are commonplace.

Protection or Enjoyment?

One of my pet peeves about Japanese ballparks is that protective netting or fencing stretches all the way down the lines, making clear view seats difficult to find. I understand the need for fencing directly behind home plate, but there shouldn't be anything down the lines. Fans who want to sit close should accept the risk that comes with sitting there. I've always tried to sit close and have never been in danger, although I usually pay attention. But last season in Mahoning Valley, a young child was struck and seriously injured by a foul ball. I fear that this unfortunate incident will lead to more teams adding netting above the dugout, which I find distracting. I like a clear view of the action and would expect other fans to agree. The question is where personal responsibility enters into the debate. I think if you want to sit close and be protected, sit behind the plate. If you want to sit down the lines, pay attention or sit farther away. But please, no more netting!

Next Up

I'm hoping to get to see the Lakers and Thunder tonight. Tickets in the upper deck are reasonably priced on the secondary market, so I should be able to get one outside the arena before game time. Check back here for a recap tomorrow.

Best,

Sean

Monday, April 26, 2010

Vancouver Canucks 4 at Los Angeles Kings 2 - Western Confernce QF, Game 6 - April 25, 2010


One of my favourite experiences is flying from Japan to the US and immediately watching a sporting event that day. This can most easily be accomplished when flying to the West Coast as the flights arrive early enough that you can make an evening game without any worry. Being in a high-energy environment of pro sports keeps you awake and helps with the jet lag. So when I realized that I'd have to visit LA as part of the London trip, I knew I could fly Sunday evening from Tokyo and see the Canucks-Kings game the same evening.

Due to the time difference, my Sunday was like this:

10 am: Wake up and watch San Jose-Colorado game on NHL GameCenter Live.
3 pm: Leave for Narita Airport
6:45 pm: Fly to LA
12 noon: Land in LA
6:00 pm: Watch playoff hockey!

There's always the underlying concern that a flight delay might cause me to miss the game, but there was no problem this time. The flight landed an hour early, which gave me a few hours to rent the car and check in to the hotel before making a short drive downtown, where the Staples Center is located.

The Playoff Experience

It was a gorgeous day in LA as I parked the car and walked over to the arena. The picture below is from the corner of Pico and Figueroa, where I found parking for $10. Considering that one block away was $20, I thought it was a good deal, although there seemed to be street parking around.


It was about 2 hours before game time but there were still a lot of fans milling about, including lots of loud and energetic Canuck fans. The CBC was filming a bunch of fans next to the ESPNZone for their opening sequence on Hockey Night in Canada. They did a number of takes; I didn't have a Canuck jersey so didn't try to get in the shot. Maybe when the Leafs finally make the playoffs...


I wandered around just soaking up the sun and the pre-game atmosphere, which was fairly low-key. The Kings theme was black and white and they had dressed the Gretzky, Magic Johnson, and Oscar De La Hoya statues in Kings jerseys. The ice girls were handing out beads and taking pictures with fans but there was a notable lack of energy. I think the fans knew that the 7-2 drubbing the Kings took in game 5 did not bode well for their chances today.


The ticket office was showing plenty of single seats in all price levels, and there weren't any obvious scalpers, so I ponied up the dough (well, the credit card) and got a lower level seat in row 8 in the end that Vancouver would shoot twice. Tickets were actually not that expensive, I paid almost the same in Tampa for the Leafs game and paid more in Ottawa last month.

I had a quick look at the ESPN Zone but it was packed, and with gates opening 90 minutes before the game, I decided to enter early and tour the rink.

Staples Center

The Staples Center is part of a larger entertainment complex known as L.A. Live, which includes the Nokia Theater and ESPN Zone. The arena itself is arguably one of the premier sports destinations in the country as it is home to the Lakers and Clippers as well as the Kings. Even the D-League has a team here as does the WNBA.

Staples Center is located on Figueroa St in downtown LA, and is close to the Pico Blue Line MetroRail station. Parking is available in nearby lots or you can try to find street parking north of the venue.

The front of the arena has 4 statues of local legends. Magic Johnson is the most prominent, with the Gretzky and De La Hoya statues standing nearby. The most recent addition is of late Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn. This statue was added just a few days ago and was very popular among fans for the unique photographic opportunity. You can sit in the chair next to Hearn's statue and have your picture taken.


Once inside, there are three levels of seating suitably named the 100, 200, and 300 levels. But in reality, the 200 level is only separated from the 100 level by a walkway, so they are quite far away from the ice. Furthermore, the prime sideline seats at this level are called "Premier" and are more expensive than the lower seats.

If you are capable of withstanding extended periods of time at altitude, you can try sitting in the 300 level. From my experience, seats at this level seem to be the furthest from the ice in any arena. This is because there are three levels of suites that rise vertically from the lower bowl, which pushes the upper bowl seats further away. In the picture below, you can see how the 100 and 200 levels are barely separated and then 3 levels of suites above that. The 300 seats are barely visible in the darkness.


The concourse in the upper level seemed quite narrow. Although I was there well before game time and there were few fans around, I got the impression that it would be crowded during intermissions. This is the view from the first row of the upper deck. I should note that the seats are all covered with towels which the fans wave whenever the Kings score.


Food options here are not that impressive, with McDonald's and California Pizza Kitchen the most notable options. Prices weren't exorbitant, but I didn't see anything worth trying.

One interesting and unique feature are red lights that are hung underneath each section in the upper bowl. These are turned on when the Kings score, which adds a bit of colour to the annoyingly loud celebrations.

The Kings have a couple of banners including their 1993 Campbell Conference Championship (ugh) but they are overshadowed by the Lakers banners, which include the 2009 NBA championship and are much larger in general.

Overall, I wasn't that impressed with the venue. It's a great location and a huge and imposing place, but doesn't seem to have that much to differentiate it from other rinks in the league. It could be because the Kings are overshadowed by the Lakers, but I didn't find anything here that would make me return on a regular basis.

From the Nokia Plaza after the game

Sneaking On the Ice

While I was wandering around the lower bowl, I noticed that a few fans had lined up and were getting their picture taken on the ice. They all had credentials of some sort, but that didn't stop me from playing dumb and lining up. Another Canucks fan lined up behind me and we managed to sneak onto the ice. Of course, the photographer asks us for our credentials but I don't care about the photo. I am standing on the ice at the Staples Center!!! Well, I'm standing on a mat actually, but it's the first time I've been on an NHL surface and it's pretty cool. The other guy begged to get an official picture but the photographer wouldn't do it, as the other fans had paid for the privilege. But he allowed me to snap a picture of the guy before leaving the ice. Didn't get a picture of myself, but I still spent a memorable minute there.

Scorer's table

From the ice

The Warmup

Before every hockey game, I like to stand next to the glass and watch one team warm up. You can get a feeling for how the team is feeling and also figure out the lines and defensive pairings which make it easier to watch the game.

Today, I watched the Canucks. I noticed that they were serious and focused, but still relaxed. After all, they were up 3-2 and coming off a rout two days before. There were several loud Canucks fans next to me banging on the glass but the players generally ignored them, although Ryan Kesler did flip a puck to one lucky gentleman.

The pics below are all from this warmup period.

Luongo stretches

Steve Bernier, who scored the first goal for Vancouver

Alexandre Burrows

Kesler


Kesler again, look at the torque on the stick

I have plenty more but that's enough for now.

The Game

It was a 6 pm start but I think the Canucks forgot this because they were pretty much non-existent for two periods. The Kings outshot them 16-5 and were up 1-0 on a wraparound goal from Alexander Frolov, who outworked Henrik Sedin and beat Roberto Luongo on the far side.

Drew Doughty and Daniel Sedin

The second period started much the same as LA continued to pressure the Canucks and it looked like they were about to go up 2-0 when Luongo was on his back and without his stick as the loose puck went to Ryan Smith in the slot. But Luongo made the save of the playoffs, waving his glove and nabbing the puck to keep the game 1-0. This ended up being the #1 play of the day on ESPN and it was doubtless one of the best saves I've seen.

Luongo peeks from behind Ryan Smith

Shortly thereafter, the Kings took a penalty and Vancouver capitalized when Steve Bernier tipped in an Alexander Edler point shot to tie the game. The save seemed like a turning point, but the Kings didn't give up and were rewarded when Drew Doughty scored from a point shot just as a Canuck penalty expired. The second period ended with LA up 2-1 and outshooting Vancouver 26-11.

Luongo was the difference, keeping his team in it and they finally responded. Just two minutes in, Kevin Bieksa took a harmless shot from the right circle but LA goaltender Jonathan Quick opened the five-hole nice and wide and the puck trickled in to tie the game. Quick immediately hung his head, knowing that the easy goal would be tough for the Kings to get back. A few teammates skated by to encourage him, but their body language was not positive. Still, Quick made a great save off Kyle Wellwood just 30 seconds after the goal and that seemed to give the Kings some lift.

The rest of the period had some great chances for both teams but Vancouver was definitely stronger. They were winning the battles along the boards and had several great rushes but Quick was equal to the task and it looked like overtime would be needed. With just over two minutes to go, Mikael Samuelsson broke his stick on a shot. The puck slid to Daniel Sedin who bounced it off the post and behind a startled Quick to give the Canucks a 3-2 lead and send the Vancouver fans into a frenzy.


The Kings pulled Quick on their next rush up the ice (above) but Alexandre Burrows added an empty netter to clinch things (celebrations below) and the Canucks were off to the second round.





The handshakes, Bernier thanks Quick for letting in the first goal

This was a great game. Lots of end-to-end rushes, some great goaltending including the save of the year, a last-minute goal, and the Canucks advancing. Very glad I made it over for this one.

Vancouver was the more talented team but they are inconsistent and rely on Luongo too much. You can beat LA this way, but Chicago will be more difficult (assuming the Blackhawks beat the Predators). The Canucks will need to improve their work ethic for the whole game if they are keep moving on. Let's hope they recognize this and get to the conference finals.

Notes

This is the second time I have seen the Canucks beat the Kings in a playoff game in LA. Back in 1993, 3 friends and I drove 24 hours straight to watch the Canucks win game 4 of the Smythe Division Final at the Great Western Forum. But the Canucks lost the next two games and watched as the Kings went to the Stanley Cup finals.

Three years ago I saw Vancouver eliminated in Anaheim in round 2. In that case, Anaheim went to the finals and won the Cup.

So, the trend is set. If I see a playoff game in LA, the team that wins the series goes to the final. Let's see if the Canucks can continue the tradition.

Speaking of the 1993 Kings, Wayne Gretzky was in attendance and shown on the scoreboard, which drew a loud cheer from the crowd.

One interesting banner was the numbers 16 down to 1 which represents the number of games that you have to win the Stanley Cup. 16 and 15 were crossed off, looks like they'll have to wait until next year for 14.


In the second period, a shot went off the post and sailed into the crowd just above my head. I had no idea as the fans were mostly wearing black so I didn't see the puck until a blur zoomed overhead. It landed two rows behind me and fortunately didn't hit anyone; there's no way any fan can expect to see it in time.

Next up

Tonight I drive north to Lancaster, where the California League's Jethawks host the High Desert Mavericks. Tomorrow the Lakers and Thunder do battle in game 5 of their series which is now tied 2-2. Tickets for that game are outrageously expensive and almost all gone, so no guarantee I can get in. After that, there's more baseball with a Cal League doubleheader on Wednesday (morning game in Rancho Cucagmonga, evening in Inland Empire) and the Pirates-Dodgers on Thursday. I'm going to be here on Friday too and just found out that #1 Arizona State is in town to take on #5 UCLA in NCAA baseball action. What a great way to finish the trip before I fly to London on Saturday.

On a related note, the Phoenix Suns are home tonight for game 5 of their series against the Trailblazers and then the Coyotes take on the Red Wings tomorrow night in game 7. I briefly considered driving over but the hockey tickets are way too expensive, so I'll stick with the original plan and see Phoenix next month.

Exclusive coverage here as always!

Best,

Sean