Sunday, May 27, 2012

Singapore, the 6th best sports city in the world!


The website SportBusiness.com recently released its list of 25 Ultimate Sports Cities and Singapore was number 6 on the list, ahead of every single city in North America except New York, which came in 4th. In fact, no other city from the USA even made the list. So according to them, I now live in a city that is better for sports than Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, Philadelphia, etc. Yeah, right.

To be fair, the survey focuses on large sporting events like the Olympics (hence London taking over the top spot and Vancouver taking 12th) rather than the team sports that are far more prevalent in the States and provide more opportunities to watch games. Since Singapore hosts the F1 every year in September and also held the Youth Olympics in 2010 among other low-level events, it received a lot of points, making it the number one sports city in Asia despite having just a single soccer league locally.

Despite the rather biased nature of this list, it does provide ideas for international sports travel. Cities like Copenhagen (#8) or Budapest (#18) make for intriguing destinations in Europe, while Melbourne (#2) and Sydney (#3) are excellent spots if you want to make the trip Down Under. Americans are very insular when it comes to sports, generally ignoring anything that isn't hyped up by ESPN, so studying what is available in these cities is a good way to increase one's overall knowledge of the international sports scene. If there's one thing I've learned in my 15 years living overseas, it is that all sports can be fascinating once you understand the game. Hopefully articles such as this will inspire some to seek out new sporting destinations outside their comfort zone.

Best,

Sean

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Oklahoma City Barons 3 at Toronto Marlies 5 (AHL Western Conference Final, Game 3) - May 21, 2012


There's nothing like playoff hockey on the unofficial first day of summer. In Toronto no less. Yes, although the Leafs and the post-season are not words that have been used in the same sentence since 2004 (unless said sentence includes the word "missed"), their minor league team is playing in the AHL's semi-finals. My visit to Toronto had been planned months ago and I didn't expect it to include a hockey game, but the AHL schedule maker was kind to me, slotting Game 3 on Monday afternoon, the Victoria Day holiday in Canada.



I bought a pair of tickets online as soon as they went on sale and invited my friend Sharpy who was in Toronto for the weekend as well. We showed up an hour before the game, only to be forced into a surprisingly large will-call queue. When I saw two games here a couple of years ago, the attendance was around 2,500 but there were nearly triple the number of fans and the Marlies didn't have the infrastructure to handle them. It took about 15 minutes till I had my tickets in hand, but it didn't bother me as I ended up with great seats, right at centre ice in the first row above an entry gate, so there was nobody in front of me.



The visitors were the Oklahoma City Barons who finished first in the west (the Marlies were a close second) and the two teams had split the first two games in Oklahoma. The Barons came out strong and dominated the first 10 minutes but Ben Scrivens (below), likely the future Leaf keeper, maintained his poise and kept the game scoreless.



Oklahoma City took the first penalty of the game against the run of play and Toronto capitalized when Phil Dupuis scored on a sharp-angled shot that Yann Danis should have stopped. The game remained as such until there were just 5 minutes left in the second. The Marlies added to their lead with another power play marker, this one by captain Ryan Hamilton who tipped home a perfect pass from Jake Gardiner (#19 below in the celebration).



As is typical in Toronto hockey games though, the two-goal lead was quickly erased as the Barons scored on a power-play shortly after Hamilton's goal and then tied the game just a minute later when Chris VandeVelde banged home a rebound. Unlike a typical Toronto game, the team didn't fold. Just 48 seconds after being tied, Matt Frattin intercepted a pass in the slot and beat Danis with a sniper's shot to again give the Marlies the lead heading into the third period.

The Marlies managed to maintain that lead through the first half of the frame, but with just eight minutes left, Magnus Paajarvi beat Scrivens with a wrist shot that again knotted things up. It looked like overtime might be needed which caused us some concern as we had to leave by 7 p.m. which meant we could probably only manage one OT period.



Fortunately, Frattin rendered our concerns mute when, with 2:02 left, he broke in alone and used a defenceman to screen Danis, beating him low to the stick side and sending the 7,327 fans into a wild celebration. Shortly thereafter, Mark Fraser was given a totally bogus tripping penalty and the fans held their collective breath, but Jerry D'Amigo (shooting above earlier in the game) added an empty net shorthanded goal to clinch it as the Marlies won 5-3 to take a 2-1 lead in the series.




A great afternoon that was completely unexpected just a few days ago. It is always fun having new games scheduled when I'm on a sports road trip, but when it is a playoff game featuring the future stars of my favourite team, it brings a new level of excitement that will be hard to duplicate. If the Marlies advance to the finals, they will take on Norfolk. I'm hoping for a game in Toronto on June 7th, when I am stopping over on my way to Atlanta for the Florida State League trip. It will be unlikely, but if it happens, I'll see you there.

Notes

Nazem Kadri started but was hurt in the first period and did not return. He is a key part of the team and the Leafs' future so hoping it is nothing serious.

Oklahoma City is Edmonton's affiliate. Earlier this season I saw the Leafs and Oilers in Edmonton, but since the AHL maintains the "home team wears white" rule, the uniforms in this game were quite similar. The result was similar too, with Toronto winning on a late goal (although the previous one was in overtime). Both Gardiner and Paajarvi played in that game as well.

Best,

Sean

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Indianapolis Indians 6 at Buffalo Bisons 11 - May 19, 2012


With the Blue Jays playing an afternoon game, Saturday night was left wide open. Of course, with sports roadtrippers Gary and the King in attendance along with Andrew of the USRT, open meant we had to find another sporting event to attend. Fortunately, the AAA Buffalo Bisons were hosting a game against the Indianapolis Indians and so we all made the two-hour drive to Coca-Cola Field to complete the two-country doubleheader.

Coca-Cola Field



Built in 1988 in those heady days when Buffalo thought they might get an MLB expansion team, Coca-Cola Field is celebrating its 25th anniversary this season. With the MLB dream dead, the park has been reconfigured with a number of seats being removed and it is now a fairly typical AAA park with two levels of seating and lots of room for fans.



Located right in downtown just a few blocks from the First Niagara Center, the ballpark is easily reached from I-190, just a couple of miles from the Peace Bridge. Parking in the neighbourhood is $5 although you can find free parking a block or two away. General admission tickets are $9.50 and the seating bowl is large enough that you can sit anywhere.



The signature food item here is the Beef on Weck for $7.25 and of course Buffalo Wings are also available. There is also a designated driver program so you can get your free pop.



As I was part of a larger group, I didn't do my usual tour, instead sitting above home plate with the rest of the sports travellers. Andrew was kind enough to point out that the scoreboard in centre field was new and it was quite nice as you can see below. I took this picture early in the game, note Vinny Rottino's home run total during his first at-bat.



Coca-Cola Field is a nice venue that suits its purpose well. There are no bells and whistles to distract you from the game (although I could have used some on this occasion, more on that below) and with capacity just over 18,000, it gives you plenty of room to sit back and relax.

The Game

After the wonderful game in Toronto, it would stand to reason that the nightcap would be less than ideal. Turns out it was one of the worst games I have seen. Jeurys Familia (below) got the start for Buffalo and gave up an unearned run in the first when Oswaldo Navarro misplayed a 2-out grounder that allowed Matt Hague to score. It was the first of 4 Buffalo errors on the evening but their offense made up for it.



In the bottom of the second, Michael Fisher doubled home Josh Satin (below) and Navarro to give the Bisons the lead. Rottino and Val Pascucci (who played for the Expos in their last season in 2004) hit back-to-back homers in the third to extend the lead but Indianapolis tied it in the fourth with Chase D'Arnaud's double the key.



Neither starter lasted 4 innings but the Bisons's bullpen was better as reliever Justin Hampson pitched 2.1 scoreless innings. Meanwhile, his teammates added three runs in the 6th including a 2-run homer from Rottino and then four more in the 8th as Rottino hit another 2-run shot, his 3rd homer on the night totalling 5 RBI.

Indianapolis managed a couple of runs in the top of the ninth to extend the game to 3:50 but they fell well short, losing 11-6. Despite giving up 8 walks and committing 4 errors, the Bisons won in a rout with six total home runs which proves that good offense makes up for poor defense.


Indy's Anderson Hernandez fouls one off

Notes

The 2012 AAA All-Star Game will be held in Buffalo on July 11, making for a great chance to see the ballpark and the best players not yet in the majors.

The Bisons hold a mascot race every game, with a chicken wing, blue cheese, and a stalk of celery the usual competitors. Celery has never won, apparently the aerodynamics of the costume make it too difficult to overcome the shorter entrants. Sure enough on this night, chicken wing won as blue cheese was ambushed by the two regular mascots who don't participate.



Thanks

Thanks to Sharpy for the drive to and from Buffalo. With the game taking nearly 4 hours, the return trip was a tough one and my jet lag saw me nodding off on occasion, so well done Sharpy!

Thanks to Andrew for arranging to have our names in lights!



Thanks to the King for his signature strikeout call, performed 9 times on the evening, which had fans in our section both bemused and amused. That's him below with his arm outstretched as he yells "Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee" for about 20 seconds before finishing with a "Struck. Him. Out!!!!!" By the end of the evening, much of the crowd was joining in.



Next Up

I'm on my way back to Singapore tomorrow. No games planned during my two weeks there but June will see me in Florida to do the entire Florida State League as well as seeing the Jays in that new ballpark in Miami. Check back for more then.

Best,

Sean


Monday, May 21, 2012

New York Mets at Toronto Blue Jays - May 18-20, 2012


The Victoria Day long weekend is the unofficial start of summer in Canada and Toronto celebrated by hosting three separate sporting events. Most prominent among these was a 3-game interleague series with the Blue Jays hosting the New York Mets at Rogers Centre.


Rogers Centre



Built in 1989 as the first retractable roof stadium in the world, the SkyDome was a beautiful facility back then. I remember going about a month after it opened and being so impressed with its size and modern feel. When the Blue Jays won back-to-back World Championships in 1992-93, the Dome hosted 50,000 rabid fans every night, but as time passed and the retro park boom took over, the SkyDome quickly became a dinosaur in the stadium world. Even a name change to Rogers Centre doesn’t change the fact that the ballpark has not aged particularly well and is now one of the oldest venues in MLB.



The stadium is located right next to the iconic CN Tower along Toronto's lakefront. When the roof is open, it is a great sight both during the afternoon and evening.



Getting to Rogers Centre is best accomplished by public transit as Union Station is connected to the stadium by an indoor SkyWalk. There is reasonably cheap parking nearby as well, although streets get crowded with fans after the game and it can take a while to escape downtown.



Tickets range from $11 for the upper deck (500 level) to $62 for Premium Dugout seats, with club seats in the second level going for $75. These prices are for “regular” games but weekend games and those with high-profile opponents are deemed “premium” and cost a bit more. As well, the Jays add a $2 "convenience fee" at their own box office so you will not pay the listed price. I have never seen a club add such fees before; those are usually the realm of TicketMaster and other brokers. I don't understand why they don't just list the price at $13. Scalpers are plentiful and worth talking to if you want to see what is available. My advice is to try to sit in the first row of the upper deck, it is the best value for money in the ballpark.



It is easy to get into the stadium with 15 gates, although only half of these are used by most fans. Once inside, you will find yourself on the main concourse. There are three seating levels, labelled 100, 200, and 500. The 100 level is much more crowded and has the most food options. However, I never eat inside here as it is generally overpriced ($4.75 for a bottle of water?!) and you can get a very good hot dog from one of many carts outside the stadium before the game. There is a designated driver program that is worth signing up for as you get a large soft drink for free.



The 200 level is mostly used for club seats, but there are seats in the outfield as well (picture from there above) here but again, I would rather sit in the 500 level between the bases. Each row in this level has a bar in front of it which encourages leaning forward, hence the first row is the best.

Above center-field is Windows, a restaurant that gives a good view of the action while you enjoy a meal. You will also notice the Renaissance Hotel here with 70 rooms facing the field, a unique touch. Those are some of the rooms below the Jays' collection of pennants.



Overall, Rogers Centre is a great spot to watch a game when the roof is open, but when it is closed, it becomes a typical dome. Regardless, it will always have a special place in my heart after the Jays 1993 World Series was won here and I love coming home to watch them. I only hope I can return in October one year to see them in the playoffs after a nearly 20-year drought.

Game 1 - Toronto 14, New York 5

I had left Singapore on Wednesday and spent Thursday in Tokyo finishing off some personal affairs before an early Friday flight to Toronto. As such, I was still suffering a bit from jet lag when the game got underway just after 7 p.m., but with the roof open and the Jays bats on fire, the mental fog quickly dissipated. J.P. Arencibia blasted a 3-run shot in the first, Yan Gomes hit his first major league dinger in the 2nd, Arencibia added a solo shot in the 3rd, and Rajai Davis added two homers as Toronto destroyed the Mets 14-5.

It was a great game for Toronto fans, but not for fans of good pitching, with 15 walks being issued on the evening. Perhaps the most interesting stat was that Toronto only grounded out once, with 12 air outs and 11 strikeouts. The Jays are one team you want to avoid giving up too many fly balls to, they are so strong that many of them end up being homers.



With Gomes (above) being the first Brazilian to play in the majors, his home run was obviously the first for a Brazilian. As it was hit in Canada, we must respond by scoring our first World Cup goal in Brazil. I therefore predict that the Canadian men’s soccer team will advance to the 2014 World Cup and score at least one goal in group play. Check back in two years to see how that forecast fares.

Game 2 - Toronto 2, New York 0

The story here was Toronto starter Brandon Morrow (below), who pitched a complete game, 3-hit shutout. Toronto scored two in the fifth off reliever Jeremy Hefner, who was brought in to relieve Miguel Batista who had lasted just two frames before leaving with an injury. The Mets threatened in the ninth as Mike Baxter singled into the corner with one out and a man on first. Baxter tried for second but was gunned down by Jose Bautista, although it turned out the umpire blew the call and Baxter should have been safe. Instead of having the tying run on second, the Mets were down to their last out and David Murphy lined out to short to finish things off.



Gary and the King from Royalty Tours were here and Gary was kind enough to let me use his ticket three rows from the field for which I thank him profusely. With the game taking just 2:12 though, I only spent about 90 minutes there as I had to rejoin everyone for our trip to Buffalo for a AAA game, but I'll post separately about that experience.

Game 3 - New York 6, Toronto 5

It was Brandon Morrow bobblehead day and a huge crowd of 41,867 (an attendance figure more suitable for Canada Day) was on hand on a beautiful Sunday afternoon to see if the Jays could sweep all of New York (they took a small 2-game set from the Yankees earlier in the week).

Henderson Alvarez started for Toronto and was roughed up early as the Mets scored 3 in the first and another in the second for an early 4-0 lead. The Blue Jays responded with a Gomes RBI single in their half of the second and a Bautista homer in the third, but the Mets got those two back in the fifth.
Alvarez was replaced and the Jays' bullpen kept the Mets scoreless the rest of the way, and when the offence added three runs late in the game, it was 6-5 entering the bottom of the ninth.



Ex-Jay Frank Francisco came on to close things out and promptly walked Yunel Escobar and gave up a single to Bautista (above). At this point, I would have accepted some sort of small ball strategy to get both runners into scoring position, but the Jays middle of the order are all power hitters so that was not going to happen. Instead, Edwin Encarnacion, Arencibia, and Eric Thames all struck out swinging and the Mets avoided being swept. Baxter (below) was the star for the visitors with a single, double, and triple to go along with two runs and an RBI. He had two chances for the cycle but grounded out and was walked.



Next Up

The Marlies are in the AHL semi-finals and I'll be going to that game this afternoon, which is the Victoria Day holiday in Canada. I'm then returning to Singapore on Wednesday and will spend two weeks there before returning to North America to do my Florida State League road trip in June. As usual, keep checking back for updates.

Best,

Sean

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Chonburi 2 at Home United 1 (AFC Cup, Matchday 6) - May 8, 2012


After 15 years in Japan, I have moved to Singapore, perhaps the worst country for watching live sports as there is little of interest in such a small nation. The S.League is the main soccer circuit with 13 teams and there is another Singaporean club that plays in Malaysia's Super League. The ASEAN Basketball League also has a single team based at Singapore Indoor Stadium. Finally, there is the F1, a world-class event that lasts only three days in September. It looked like things would be beyond boring here, but I was happy to find out that the Asian Football Confederation provides a tournament for clubs from smaller soccer nations such as Singapore. Even better, there would be a key game just two days after I arrived.

AFC Cup

Last month I saw a couple of AFC Champions League matches to close out my time in Japan. That league is for the top clubs from the bigger soccer nations in Asia such as Australia and South Korea, but with 47 members, the Asian Football Confederation needs another competition for club teams from weaker countries like Vietnam and Malaysia. The AFC Cup is that tournament. It is held simultaneously with the ACL, using the same structure with 8 groups divided evenly between East and West Asia. Each group has 4 teams face off in a home-and-away round robin and this week saw the final games of the group stage.

There were two Singaporean teams in the competition but Tampines Rovers had already been eliminated. Home United, on the other hand, had qualified for the second round but their final game was against group leaders Chonburi of Thailand. The winner would take first place in group G and secure a home game in the round of 16, while the loser would finish second and face a lengthy road trip to the Middle East. This might not be as compelling as the NHL playoffs, but as beggars cannot be choosers, I headed over to Bishan Stadium to check out the action.

Bishan Stadium



Located just 5 minutes from Bishan Station on the North-South MRT line, this stadium was apparently renovated for the 2010 Youth Olympic Games. It was difficult to tell as the field was patchy and in poor shape. The stadium itself consists of one stand with a lower and upper section with uncomfortable seats that have no leg room. There was no food available and if you tried to buy a drink outside from the single working pop machine, you were not allowed to bring it in. It was a humid 30 degrees and I can't figure out why food and beverages weren't permitted, but most fans didn't seem to mind.



Tickets were only $6 (about $4.80 US) and you could sit anywhere. The lower section was filled with a small group of supporters, one of whom had to pay and extra $2 to store his snare drum on an empty seat. The upper section was a bit cooler and provided a better view of the action.



Suffice to say that I loved this place as it is certainly much different than what I grew used to while in Japan. Just next time, I'll sneak some food in.

The Teams

Thailand is not considered a "weak" country by the AFC and Chonburi qualified for the AFC Cup after losing an ACL playoff to South Korea's Pohang Steelers. They had 3 wins and 2 draws from their five games.

Home United is an S League squad that represents the Singapore Police Force as well as the Ministry of Home Affairs and other government protective organizations. Their nickname is appropriately the Protectors and many of their fans seem to belong to one of these groups as there were uniforms and crew cuts galore. Home United qualified for the competition by winning the 2011 Singapore Cup and had 3 wins and a draw from their five fixtures, with their only loss coming away to Chonburi.

The Game

The visitors got off to a quick start when the Home defence was caught napping and Thai national player Pipob On-mo was left alone in front from where he drilled home a cross from the right just four minutes in. The next 20 minutes was some of the more entertaining soccer I have seen, in that neither team was concerned about defending. The action was back and forth with several chances at both ends parried by some great goalkeeping, in one case from a Home defender who headed away a sure marker from Therdsak Chaiman.



Clearly outplayed in the first half-hour, Home United made an early substitute, bringing on Frederic Mendy, a tall Frenchman of Senegalese descent (in red below) who towered over the Chonburi defence. Even then, the Home midfield couldn't get him the ball with anything approaching regularity and halftime arrived with the visitors up 1-0.



With it so hot and humid, the second half was somewhat slower and it wasn't until the 57th minute when Chonburi brought on Kotchaplayuk Noppanon (#34 above), a speedy winger, that the game picked up. It was a good substitution as Kotchaplayuk energy allowed him to race past the Home defense, receive a perfectly timed pass from  Therdsak, and chip over Lionel Lewis to give the visitors a 2-0 with just 13 minutes left.



Home United broke the shutout with a nice passing play but it was too late, coming with just 4 minutes left as Chonburi held on to win 2-1. With the loss, Home United is forced to travel to Syria in two weeks to face the winners of Group E, Al-Shorta. Update: Home United lost, ending Singapore's hope for continental glory.

Next Up

I'm afraid that there is very little to see here in Singapore in terms of good sport so this blog will be fairly quiet for a while. Mostly I'll be traveling around Southeast Asia or going back home for an extended sports road trip. The first of these is next week when I head back to Toronto to see the Jays and Mets in a 3-game set as well as a side trip to Buffalo for the Bisons. The Marlies have made the AHL semi-finals and I'm hoping they have a home game while I am there as well. Check back then for some updates.

Best,

Sean

Monday, May 7, 2012

Stadium Journey Magazine


Regular readers will know that I've done a few reviews for the folks at Stadium Journey, a site dedicated to providing detailed information on sports venues around the world. Last year, they began publishing a  magazine on a bi-monthly basis with each issue is dedicated to a theme, such as the SEC or March Madness. The most recent SJ Magazine offering is all about Major League Baseball, with all 30 parks reviewed, special features on Fenway and the Marlins' new stadium among others, a trivia section, and a truly fantastic opinion piece on how the overseas openers are good for the game. In fact, I might say it is the best article I have ever read and makes the purchase of the magazine more than worthwhile. (That said article is written by me is merely a coincidence!)

Both print ($7.99) and digital ($2.99) versions are available here.  Please have a look and pick up a copy for your own MLB road trips in 2012.

Best,

Sean