Monday, March 31, 2014

Toronto Raptors 98 at Orlando Magic 93 - March 30, 2014


I wanted my final venue visit for Club 122 to involve a Toronto team on the road, and the NBA scheduler obliged by sending the Raptors to Orlando on March 30th. I had visited the Magic back in 2010, but that was during the last season of Amway Arena. My rules of Club 122 stipulate active arenas, although it has been pointed out to me that anybody who sees a game in all Big 4 venues at some point in their lives deserves a membership. Hard to disagree with that, given that so few people have actually accomplished it. And now I am one of them!

Amway Center



Located at the corner of Church Street and Hughey Avenue right next to I-4, the Amway Center is the centrepiece of Orlando's revitalization plan dubbed Master Plan 3. There is a parking garage right next to it sponsored by Geico, but that should be avoided as free street parking is available on Orange Avenue north of Jefferson, about a 10-minute walk away, through a street lined with bars and pubs.



The front of the arena is closed off to traffic and a small party plaza is set up. There are a number of Florida-specific displays including one with live animals, such as a baby American alligator that you can hold (above). These creatures will be re-released into the wild once they are rehabilitated; from what I could tell they are generally taken from residential areas and then relocated to their natural surroundings, so this little fellow should be swimming freely in a few weeks.



Entering into the Disney Atrium (above), you can take an escalator to the 100 level. If you want food,  better to find something here as the upper concourse has fewer options. I did not partake during either of my visits though. There is a guest assistance booth with the designated driver program allowing you to get a free small soda. Judging by the confused look I received when I tried to redeem my coupon, few patrons take advantage of this offer.



As you walk around the lower concourse, you might realize that you cannot see any of the floor from most locations. Only at one end does the concourse open up with a view (above). In other cases, you have to walk down a long flight of stairs to reach the seating area, where you will be asked to show your ticket. Mentioning that you are just going to take a photograph will usually allow you a quick pass, but don't loiter. I should mention that having the stairways below the club seats does allow the them and the upper deck to be closer to the floor.



The main weakness of the Amway Arena was its lack of luxury seating and alternative areas, and this has been rectified in the new building, with over 60 suites and 68 loge boxes between the 100 and 200 levels, as well as 14 MVP Tables which seat 4 fans each. Prices for some of these locations are not outrageous if you want a unique experience when visiting the Magic. There were even seats available on TicketMaster the day of the game. Other special areas include 'Ronas and 'Ritas, an outdoor lounge with a view of the highway (below).



As mentioned, the upper bowl is actually not that far away from the floor compared to other multi-use venues, the photo below is from my seat in the first row of section 212. The seats in the foreground are part of the Club.



Overall, Amway Center is an excellent venue in terms of design and amenities, and it can be quite affordable as well. Unfortunately the team is struggling and fans are staying away, as you can see above. This lack of atmosphere really hurts the gameday experience and had me yawning at various points throughout the contest. When the Magic return to respectability, I would expect Amway Center to me a more engaging place, but until then, expect a lacklustre affair should you attend.

The Game

The Raptors had just clinched a playoff spot and I was worried that they wouldn't be too motivated for this one, and they started slowly, falling behind 22-21 late in the first quarter.  They then went on a 23-4 run to take a commanding 19-point lead into the half at 57-38. The story of the half was foul shots, as the Raptors committed only 6 infractions compared to 12 for Orlando, which led to 14 Toronto points on perfect free throw shooting. To make matters worse for the Magic, they went 0/7 from beyond the arc. Jonas Valanciunas (below) led the Raptors with 16 points.



I fully expected the Magic to mount some sort of comeback as it happens so often in basketball, but I wasn't prepared for what happened. The Magic went 10/15 including 3/4 from downtown to win the 3rd quarter 26-16 and close the gap to 9 points. Jameer Nelson (below) led the way with 12 for Orlando.



The fourth quarter saw the Magic make 3 quick treys on their way to tying the game at 76. I was furious by now at how Toronto had played without any intensity and allowed one of the worst teams in the league to get back into it. Didn't they know it was my Club 122 game?! Thankfully, the Raptors woke up and took an 85-80 lead, helped by the Magic finally missing some threes. When DeMar DeRozan sank a couple of free throws (below) to make it 87-80 with five minutes left, I breathed a little easier.



Of course, things were not quite over. Of course. Down 93-84, the Magic went on a mini 9-3 run to get within three points with just 30 seconds to go. Kyle Lowry missed a layup and the Magic rebounded and called timeout with just 8.9 seconds on the clock. They would have a single chance to tie the game. Maurice Harkless took the ball on the sideline and looked for an open teammate. The Raptors managed to cover everyone and Harkless failed to pass the ball within the allotted 5 seconds resulting in a turnover. DeRozan was fouled immediately and sank both shots to make the final 98-93.



Although the Raptors won, the ending was anticlimactic. I would have much preferred that Orlando take a shot, even if overtime was the result. The referee who made the call, Scott Foster, did the same against the Raptors last season, so perhaps it was fitting after all.

DeRozan led all scorers with 28 points, including 15/16 from the charity stripe. Orlando outshot Toronto from the floor 55% to 45%, but Toronto's 26/27 rate from the line earned them the road win. In particular, Orlando played extremely well in the second half, sinking 22 of 33 from the floor, but it was their lack of aggressiveness inside that cost them in the big picture.

Interestingly, the game in New Orleans had a similar score, won 98-96 by the Pelicans, but this one was a stinker, with 34 turnovers and generally poor play all around. The media will have you believe that a close basketball game is a good basketball game, but that is not necessarily the case. For me, at least Toronto won, allowing me to celebrate my Club 122 entrance happily.

Notes

Grevis Vasquez came in off the bench late in the first and received a cut on his cheekbone that required 5 stitches, forcing him out until the second half. He returned and played nearly 15 minutes, finishing with 5 points. That's him below with the bandage on his cheek.



The Magic are celebrating their 25th season by winning 25% of their games (28.4% actually but why let reality get in the way of a good joke).



My wife joined me for the game, allowing me to have a good picture taken of myself for a change. She was happy that the Magic scored five three-pointers as all fans get a free sandwich from Chick-Fil-A on Monday. Needless to say, I was not happy, leading to some spirited discussions of how we root for Toronto in this family.



Next Up

Major League Baseball was kind enough to have the Blue Jays open the season in Tampa so I'll be heading there for three games in that series, skipping opening day. Check back on the weekend for a recap.

Best,

Sean

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Evansville Icemen 4 at Orlando Solar Bears 5 (ECHL) - March 29, 2014




Casual hockey fans might think that Florida has but two pro hockey clubs, the Lightning of Tampa Bay and the Florida Panthers. Actually though, there are a few other teams that skate in the Sunshine State: the Florida Everblades and Orlando Solar Bears of the ECHL and the Pensacola Ice Flyers in the SPHL. I've seen a game in Estero where the Everblades play and stopped in Pensacola during my NFL Road Trip, leaving just Orlando. The Solar Bears are a relatively new team, having begun play in 2011 and taking the name of the IHL team that folded in 2001 along with the league. In 2013, the Solar Bears started an affiliation with the Maple Leafs, who join the Iowa Wild as the NHL clubs supplying players to Orlando.



The team plays in the Amway Center, also a new addition to the community, opened in 2010 to replace the outdated Amway Arena. Although the Orlando Magic are the primary tenants, the arena was designed with hockey in mind as well, allowing the Solar Bears to be formed.



The upper bowl is closed off for hockey, but the club seats are open and on one side, they look pretty cool, resembling a press box with tables as you can see in the upper portion of the picture above. Known as the Loge Boxes, they seem like a good deal at at $42, given that the cheapest box office ticket is $16.



There is also a standing area behind one of the nets that offers a good view of the whole ice surface (above). I spent the third period here after sitting low in the corner for the first two.  Concessions here can be overpriced as they use the same pricing structure as the Magic, but $4 for a pretzel seems fair. As I'm coming back for basketball, I didn't spend much time touring the facility, but it works very well for hockey. Given that the Florida Gators were playing in the Elite 8 at the same time, you would expect a sparse crowd but there are a lot of sports fans who haven't been seduced by the hype of March Madness and they were rewarded with a very entertaining game.

The Game

The Evansville IceMen cameth into Orlando for a 2-game series. The division-leading Solar Bears won the first match on Thursday and wanted the sweep to all but clinch a playoff spot. Evansville is out of the playoff race but not eliminated yet. Cody Reichard (below), who made SportsCenter's top 10 plays last month, started for Orlando against Mike Clemente.



Early on, league-leading scorer Mickey Lang had a breakaway for Orlando, only for the puck to be tapped off his stick by a diving defenseman. Lang fell over the d-man as the puck skittered away and the referee awarded a penalty shot, which was not correct according to rule 57.3, as Lang had lost control.  IceMen coach Jeff Pyle strenuously disagreed with the call (below) but the ref couldn't change his mind and Lang took his penalty shot, only to have it saved by Clemente.



Midway through the period, Connor Goggin (below) opened the scoring for Orlando, beating Clemente with a hard shot from the point. Evansville tied the game on a power play and that is how the first period ended.



The second period saw the teams trade early goals, with Goggin scoring his second to tie the game at 2 just 1:17 in. Then Reichard let a softie from Daultan Leveille beat him over the shoulder and when Kellan Tochkin banged home a rebound just 41 seconds later, Reichard was done for the evening. He was replaced by Maxime Clermont (below), who played junior for Gatineau, where I saw him play in 2010.



That seemed to spark the Solar Bears, who scored two quick ones from Taylor Matson and Jacob Cepis and send us to the final frame knotted at 4.



With just seven minutes to go in the game, Cepis took a pass from Lang, skated in, and beat Clemente with a perfect slap shot to send the crowd of 8,458 into a frenzy. Later on, Ian Slater had an empty net after skating around Clemente, who threw his stick to break up the play. Yep, another penalty shot, this time Slater missed wide (below) to keep the IceMen in the game. They tried furiously to tie, but Clermont was equal to the task and Orlando won 5-4.



With the Maple Leafs historic eight-game slide from second place to tenth, I'll take this as small consolation: at least one affiliated Toronto hockey team won today.



Notes

Speaking of the Leafs, Carlton seems to have been used as inspiration for Shades, the Solar Bears mascot.



There was a charity game played earlier in the afternoon with former players Allan Bester, Dave Christian, Mike Ramsey and Marcel Dionne on hand. They were on the ice during the first intermission for an award presentation and signed autographs during the second. Bester finished his career in Orlando back in the mid-1990s after being run out of Toronto, much like what is happening to James Reimer now.



The fans behind me were obsessed with shots on goal. In particular, they felt that anytime the goalie touched the puck, it should be a shot (not true) and when the "shot" was not added to the total, they felt the stats guy wasn't doing his job. I wanted to turn around and explain to them the criteria for a shot on goal, but held my tongue. Nobody likes snotty Canadians explaining the intricacies of hockey. Safe to say there is no conspiracy in Orlando to hold down the home team shot total.

Next Up

The Raptors are in Orlando tonight and I'm heading back to enter Club 122. That means I will have seen a game in all 122 active venues of the Big 4 sports! Check back tomorrow for a recap of that.

Best,

Sean

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Los Angeles Clippers 96 at New Orleans Pelicans 98 - March 26, 2014




The New Orleans Pelicans have been in the news quite a bit lately, but not for their on-court performance, or lack thereof. During the off-season, they changed their name from Hornets to a more regionally relevant moniker and introduced a frightening mascot that left the kids of Crescent City in tears, even when the Pels managed a win. More recently, the aptly named New Orleans Arena joined the crowd of corporately sponsored venues by signing an agreement with Smoothie King, just in time for the NBA All-Star Game last month. So now the Pelicans play at the Smoothie King Center. Amazingly, nobody even thinks twice about this; fans are so inured to silly stadium names that they are completely ignored.



For me, New Orleans was the second last city on my long trip to Club 122. According to some though, it could be considered the last, as I have already seen a basketball game in Orlando, at the old Amway Arena. I prefer to count active venues though, as it keeps one road tripping pretty much continuously, but you can certainly include yourself as a member if you have seen a game in all 122 venues, even those that have been closed.

Smoothie King Center



Located right next to the Mercedes Benz Superdome (above), the SKC must feel a bit envious of its more impressive neighbour, whose sponsor is pretty cool too. I'd rather have a $50,000 car than a frozen yogurt, or whatever the hell a smoothie is, even if served by the King.



Getting here on transit is easy enough as the arena is just a few blocks from Canal Street, along which one of the trolleys runs. There is an outdoor Pelican Fest with games and cheerleader autograph sessions as well as a live band. This sort of outdoor party is common at NFL games but I've never seen it at an NBA venue. The big advantage is that you pass through security before entering this area, and as many fans come late, there is no waiting or bottleneck.



The box office is here as well and the cheapest ticket was $12 for the last row in the upper deck behind the net. The view is actually pretty good from here (below) and you will likely have the whole area to yourself.



The highlight here is the food, which one would expect given New Orleans' reputation for the culinary arts. The Pelicans made a concerted effort to improve their concession offerings and it shows, with unique stands throughout the two concourses. My recommendation is the Beefy Mac at Geaux Mac, a mac 'n' cheese combo with plenty of beef, a relative bargain at $8. Popcorn is also on sale for half price during the third quarter. Other options include jambalaya and sushi, but expect to pay $10 or more for those.



Fans are not that enthusiastic despite having a young, interesting team led by Anthony Davis. At 30-40 coming in, they have a ways to go to challenge in the West, but their 18-17 home record shows they are on the right track for now. The upper deck was pretty much empty and many of the cheers such as D-Fense and "Let's Go Pels" were routinely ignored. Only by the end of the game did most of the crowd begin to get involved as the Pelicans put on a good show to hold off the Clippers down the stretch.



Overall, Smoothie King Center is slightly better than a typical arena, mainly because of the eats. When the Pelicans return to NBA prominence, the fans should again come over in full force and then I think it will become one of the best venues in the league.

The Game



The LA Clippers were in town with former Hornet Chris Paul leading the way. The Clips handily won the three previous meetings but the Pelicans were on a three-game winning streak, including a 10-point victory over the Heat on the weekend. The game started sloppily with turnovers and missed shots dominating, and when Al-Farouq Aminu's missed jumper careened wildly out to Paul (above with the white sleeves), he and Blake Griffin had a 2-on-none break, which Griffin ended with a highlight-reel dunk off a backboard pass from Paul, making it 13-8 LA.



The Pelicans were not intimidated though, and even when Davis (above) took his second foul midway through the quarter and had to sit, the rest of the team stepped up to take a 29-27 lead after one. The second quarter saw them extend their lead to 7, but a late run by the Clippers made the halftime tally 55-52 for the home team. After a couple of early free throws by Davis to start the third, L.A. went on an 11-0 run to take a 63-57 lead, but again the Pelicans showed resilience, fighting back to take a 76-75 lead entering the final quarter. An early Pelicans burst highlighted by six points from Alexis Ajinca made it 88-81 and that lead stood up until the last minutes.



When Griffin made a running jump shot with 10 seconds left, the Clippers were back within a point, 97-96. Tyreke Evans (above) fouled Griffin as well, but the free throw was missed, with Davis grabbing the board. He was immediately fouled by Griffin, who walked down the floor hanging his head in shame for his missed freebie (below). Davis only made one of his two, giving the Clippers a chance with 8.8 seconds left. After a timeout, Paul took the ball off the inbounds but couldn't get open. He passed back to Jamal Crawford who launched a last-second three that bounced off the right rim and the Pelicans escaped with the 98-96 win.



This was not a bad game with 16 lead changes, but with Miami and Indiana playing each other on the same night, this one was relegated to the back pages. I liked New Orleans style as they didn't rely on the three-point shot (3-12 compared to 13-30 for LA), and their offensive rebounding was the key to their win. Anthony Morrow led the Pelicans with 27 points while Jamal Crawford had 31 for LA, including 7/15 from beyond the arc. Paul finished 0-12 with just two points, likely the worst game of his career.



Notes

The Pelicans rethought their mascot and the newer version is much friendlier. He even signs autographs before the game.



Clippers' coach Doc Rivers' son Austin plays for New Orleans but he had a small respiratory infection and did not dress. Eric Gordon and Brian Roberts were also out with knee injuries, so the Pelicans only dressed nine men.

We bought a ticket at the box office and it hasn't been updated to include the arena's new name yet. Smoothie King executives, you are being ripped off!

Next Up

Back to Florida for a three-sport weekend. First up is Florida Gator baseball on Friday Saturday after Friday was rained out, then ECHL hockey on Saturday, then the big game, Raptors at Magic on Sunday. That will be my final venue for Club 122! Check back for updates as usual.

Best,

Sean

Monday, March 24, 2014

Toronto Blue Jays 3 at New York Yankees 1 (Grapefruit League) - March 23, 2014


I've been so focused on getting into Club 122 that I completely forgot that spring training takes place in Florida every March. In fact, it wasn't until after I had booked my flight to Tampa that I bothered checking the schedule for the ball teams in the area. Luckily for me, the Blue Jays were visiting the Yankees on Sunday afternoon. The Yanks play at George M. Steinbrenner Field, just a couple of miles from my airport hotel. Without a rental car for the weekend, we took a taxi instead. I was wearing my Blue Jays outfit and the taxi driver asked where I was from. I told him Toronto, and he asked who would win. Still in a funk over the Leafs' collapse, I glumly said "Yankees" but he laughed and said, "No, Toronto will win". He was right, at least for the game I went to; of course the Leafs continued their freefall down the standings, losing to New Jersey. But who cares about hockey, baseball is back!



George M. Steinbrenner Field



I visited here two years ago during my Florida State League tour, and won't recap the stadium, other than to note the difference in crowds. The FSL game had about 1,000 fans while ten times that number were in attendance on this day. Parking is only available across Dale Mabry Highway next to Raymond James Stadium and costs $10, exorbitant in my mind. This is still spring training! Most fans don't seem to care though as they are here on vacation and who can blame them. For those snowbirds who endured a tough winter, a spring training game is as good as it gets. Even with a few minutes before first pitch, most fans had taken their seats as you can see below.



I managed to grab the last pair of seats on TicketMaster about two hours before game time, but there were still tickets available at the box office when we arrived, and a long line purchasing them. Not sure how that works but at least I paid face value; there were tickets on StubHub going for four times that. My advice is to buy tickets well in advance, at least for the Yankees.



Our seats were well down the third base line, but at $17 (plus service charges, the bane of sports road trips) it was not overpriced. The weather was cloudy with the occasional sprinkle, but it beats New York right about now. We settled back and enjoyed a quick afternoon of meaningless baseball.

The Game



Both teams started full major-league lineups, with the regular season just a week away. Michael Pineda (above), battling for the final spot in the Yankee rotation, got the start against Mark Buehrle. The fan favorite was naturally Derek Jeter (below) who is struggling in his final spring training. After an 0-4 day today, he is just 5-44, but as I said, this is meaningless. At least Yankee fans hope so.



The Jays scored an unearned run in the second when Edwin Encarnacion reached on a throwing error by third baseman Eduardo Nunez. After Adam Lind (below) singled, Dioner Navarro followed with a base hit of his own to score Encarnacion.



Another couple of Yankee miscues helped the Jays in the 5th. After Colby Rasmus and Brett Lawrie started with back-to-back singles, Ryan Goins laid down a great sacrifice bunt. Pineda threw wildly though, hitting Goins in the back as Rasmus scored while Lawrie advanced to third, from where he would later come home on a Pineda wild pitch.



The Yankees scored their only run in the 6th off Buehrle. Ichiro (above) doubled to lead off and moved to third on a Brett Gardner single. Jeter grounded into a double play and Ichiro jogged home, giving the local fans something to cheer about. After that, most of the starters were replaced (you can see the Yankee lineup below) and the game was filled with numerous pitching changes. Neither team scored again and the Jays won 3-1.



The game took 2:31, but I did not keep score, so I don't know how many pitches were thrown. Even ESPN and MLB.com don't seem to track pitches during spring training, but I was glad that Buehrle was throwing as he is among the fastest workers in baseball. Overall, a great experience but one that need not be repeated.



Notes

This blog began with a trip to Tucson in 2009, during which I saw my only other spring training game. Having now added the Grapefruit League to the list, I doubt I will ever again set foot in a spring training facility; it is not the relaxing experience I expected, but much more like a major league game with parking charges and overpriced food, yet without the benefit of a major league roster. I'll be sticking with the minors for my baseball fix.

From ESPN: three of the 23 major leaguers to pitch a perfect game were at Steinbrenner Field: Buehrle, Yankees spring training instructor David Wells and Yankees broadcaster David Cone.

After the game, we took a bus back to the hotel and were rewarded by being dropped off directly in front of the Brickhouse Tavern and Tap, one of the better sports bars I've seen with quality food and beer and an atmosphere that keeps even non-sports fans entertained. Check it out if you are in town.

Next Up

A couple of days off as we make our way to the Big Easy for venue 121, the Smoothie King Center, home of the New Orleans Pelicans who host the Clippers on Wednesday. Check back after that for an update.

Best,

Sean