Thursday, July 31, 2014
In the six weeks or so between the end of the World Cup and the start of another long soccer season in Europe, you would think players might be given some time off. Nope, not when there is money to be made. All but one Premier League team is somewhere in the world playing a series of friendlies; Tottenham Hotspur played Toronto FC just last week and that game, nor any friendly for that matter, did not win the affection of the Globe and Mail.
With MLS desperate to make further inroads into the American sports market and European sides hoping to increase merchandise sales, these affairs will continue regardless of media disdain. One of the more marketable events is the Champions Cup, a collection of eight top European clubs playing in two groups of four across the USA. Three teams from England (Manchester United, Manchester City, and Liverpool), three from Italy (Inter, AC Milan, and AS Roma) along with Real Madrid and Olympiakos make this a very intriguing tournament. The first game was played at BMO Field where Olympiakos shut out AC Milan 3-0, with 11 of the other 12 matches scheduled for large football stadiums in major metropolitan areas stateside. New York was the odd man out in that regard, with the match here held at Yankee Stadium. It was one of the better matchups though, featuring the EPL's top two clubs from last season in champions Manchester City and runners-up Liverpool. A friend of mine is a Liverpool supporter and he was quite excited to join me for the match. He had bought seats just behind one of the goals, and unfortunately for him, it was in the Man City cheering section (below).
From here it was difficult to get full shot of the pitch, so I used the stadium's express elevators to go to the 400 level to take the picture below. The infield dirt was partially covered by temporary grass that looked like it could prove problematic for the players.
In the end, there were no injuries as neither team played particularly aggressively, hoping to avoid any serious knocks just a couple of weeks before the EPL season gets underway. Several members of England's winless world cup squad were on hand, including Man City keeper Joe Hart, who played the second half.
Friendlies are always a bit less intense than a real match, but both teams played with some energy early on, with City dominating for the most part. Midway through, they put the ball in the net but it was correctly ruled offside, leading some of the idiot pretenders in front of me to threaten the "ref" who made the call, including one saying he would need to be escorted out of the stadium. Really? It's a meaningless friendly, and it is the linesman who makes the call, not the referee.
Anyway, the second half began with Liverpool pressuring Hart and the City defense in a vain attempt to break the scoreless game. In the 53rd minute, Man City's Jesus Navas took the ball down the right flank, sending it into the box where it embarrassingly snuck through Steven Gerrard's legs, falling to Steven Jovetic (#35 above) who easily tapped home to open the scoring. Six minutes later, Liverpool responded with a three-way passing play capped by Jordan Henderson beating Hart to tie the game. Jovetic added his second just 8 minutes after that, taking a pass from Nigerian youngster Kelechi Iheanacho and somehow finding the corner of the goal despite whiffing on the kick.
City looked set to take the match, but a late goal from Raheem Sterling, who received a one-touch volley from Lucas and broke into the box, sending the ball past a helpless Hart. Just before the final whistle, Sterling scored another beauty, but it was incorrectly ruled offside, sending the match to penalties.
The net at which the kicks were being taken was at the far end of the stadium, so pictures were tough to get. Simon Mignolet took over for Liverpool and saved both YaYa Toure and Navas (below) after Aleksandar Kolarov missed high to start the proceedings. Sturridge also missed the opener for the Reds, but Emre Can, Henderson, and Lucas all scored to give Liverpool the extra point in the standings (in the Champions Cup, winners in regulation receive 3 points as usual, while those in penalties take 2 while the loser gets 1).
This was a pretty entertaining evening for the nearly 50,000 fans in attendance, and certainly a lot more fun than any of the Yankee games I've seen this season. Next year, NYCFC, a new MLS club, will start playing at Yankee Stadium regularly and it will be interesting to see if they can draw a similar crowd in the early going.
The Champions Cup concluded with the championship match at Sun Life Stadium in Miami, where Manchester United beat Liverpool 3-1.
Sunday, July 27, 2014
The Huntsville Stars have played in the Southern League since 1985, but they are not going to be celebrating a happy 30th anniversary next year. The franchise has been sold to a group of investors who will move it to Biloxi, Mississippi. Originally scheduled to reach Biloxi in time to open the 2015 season, the team may remain in Huntsville or play a total road schedule as the new Biloxi stadium has yet to begin construction. Either way, baseball's days in Huntsville are coming to an end.
When I used to live in Japan, these are the sort of events I would watch wistfully from afar; it was never feasible to race across the world to see a soon-to-be-abandoned minor league ballpark. Now that I am living in the US though, and working as well, I can take a trip to witness what might be the final weekend in Huntsville Stars history.
With my new job, an extended trip isn't possible, so I am limited to the Labor Day weekend, when two other teams in the league are home in Montgomery and Birmingham. I found a remarkably cheap sale on flights to Atlanta through Southwest Airlines (never flown them before either), so I'm heading to the Deep South to close out the minor league baseball season.
The full schedule is short and sweet, but that suits Alabama quite nicely, at least according to Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Fri Aug 29 Jackson Generals at Montgomery Biscuits 7:05
Sat Aug 30 Jackson Generals at Montgomery Biscuits 2:05Sat Aug 30 Troy Trojans at UAB Blazers 11:00 Sat Aug 30 Pensacola Blue Wahoos at Birmingham Barons 6:30 Sun Aug 31 Mississippi Braves at Huntsville Stars 4:00
Alabama is also one of the states in which I have yet to see a sporting event. After this trip, only 6 will remain (Alaska, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Wyoming). I plan to visit all those states in 2015 to complete yet another meaningless quest. As always, check back regularly for updates.
Sunday, July 20, 2014
You might have forgotten about my 2013 NFL Road Trip, but I did not. I spent most of May writing a book about it. But rather than summarize my odyssey in diary format, I used the experience to plan a 2014 NFL road trip, offering tips in each city on the stadium, hotels, bars, attractions, as well as routes between the games. The games you would see are based on the actual 2014 NFL schedule, staring with the season opener in Seattle and finishing with a doubleheader in the Bay Area on December 20 and 21.
The book is finally available and ready to become a New York Times bestseller (update: it did not become a New York Times bestseller and is no longer on the market as it was really just good for one season).
2015 and Beyond
The plan was to update this book for 2015 and add other leagues going forward to create a series of annual sports road trip books in hard copy (think Lonely Planet for sports), but there doesn't seem to be a large demand for these sorts of travel books, so for now, I'll just be continuing with the blog as usual.
Saturday, July 19, 2014
Football in Ottawa had a long and storied history with the Rough Riders, who spent 120 years in Canada's capital in various leagues and guises. Unfortunately, mismanagement in the late 1980s and 1990s coupled with the arrival of the NHL's Senators and AAA baseball's Lynx led to the team folding in 1996. Six years later, new owners tried again with the Renegades, but they were unable to secure the Rough Riders intellectual property, and never established themselves as a viable entertainment option, disappearing in 2006 after four unsuccessful seasons.
In 2008, Ottawa 67s owner Jeff Hunt bought the franchise and eventually the rights to the Rough Riders name and history, with a plan to start a third iteration in 2010. However, Frank Clair Stadium was literally falling apart, with cracks in the south side stands being noticed. This led to a long-term renovation with the south side being completely demolished and rebuilt. Delays in construction postponed the opening of the venue, renamed TD Place Stadium, until 2014. Even the 67s had to evacuate the Civic Center (now known as TD Place Arena), playing two seasons at Scotiabank Place as the entire Lansdowne Park area was redone, with condos and an entertainment area also being added. Much of the work remains unfinished, but the stadium was finally ready for football. That's the south side below, you can see on the left how the lattice work is incomplete.
With the Saskatchewan Roughriders contesting use of the old Rough Riders nickname, Hunt decided to name the team the Redblacks instead, stylizing it in all caps and asking the media to follow along. Few have done so. Despite this rather questionable move, Hunt has done a lot right, bringing the CFL back to Ottawa with proper marketing and promotions to get fans excited. The delays were likely a blessing in the end as it gave management more time to get things right.
With renovations still being completed on TD Place, the Redblacks played their two preseason games and first two regular season games on the road. Their home opener was played in Week 4, on Friday night. As luck would have it, I had to pop back to Canada that weekend and so decided on Ottawa as my destination. Although the game was listed as sold out on the CFL website, there were single tickets available online, so I picked up one for me and one for my friend Sharpy. On Friday, we took transit (free with your game ticket, an idea other cities should adopt) and made our way along Bank Street to see Ottawa and Toronto engage in the battle of Ontario.
Arriving nearly three hours before game time, we had time to enjoy the free party that was being held next to the Aberdeen Pavilion (above). The Trews, one of Canada's top bands, performed while fans mingled in the beautiful afternoon sunshine. It was better than most of the NFL pregame parties I had attended last year. A few Argos shirts were spotted, including one Doug Flutie version worn by Sharpy that garnered a few comments, but most fans were sporting Redblacks merchandise in some form or other.
We made our way into the stadium around 5:30 and were amazed at how crowded it was despite being 90 minutes until kickoff. Fans were definitely ready for the return of football. Unfortunately, the stadium wasn't. First, there were problems with the kitchens in some of the concession stands. Orders were being taken but food wasn't ready. Some cashiers told customers this, giving them the option to choose ready-made pretzels or popcorn, but others made no mention of the wait. I ordered chorizo poutine ($8) that took about 25 minutes to be delivered (though it was very good and a huge portion, so worth the wait). Other fans had ordered ribs which were sold out before they could receive their portion, necessitating a refund and causing even more confusion. Despite this complete lack of co-ordination, orders were still being taken, leading to some very frustrated, hungry fans.
The mistakes continued during the pregame ceremonies. First, the Redblacks did not come out of their large helmet (above) when they were being introduced, waiting until the end of the introductions to come out as a group. Perhaps this was intentional, but it certainly seemed odd as another player had to run over and get them to run onto the field. Then the national anthem began without an introduction, as people stood up and players hustled to the sideline to stand at attention. The anthem had to be finished by a certain time so the flyover would occur just as the last words were being sung, hence the lack of a proper introduction.
With that done, we were ready for kickoff (above). Toronto was missing their top three receivers, while Ottawa had struggled on offense so far, so a low-scoring affair was expected and that is what happened. Neither team moved the ball with any authority, and the first half saw Ottawa score 3 field goals while the Argonauts booted 2 and added a rouge to go into the break down 9-7. Fans in the south side kept things interesting by bringing back an old chant, "North Side Sucks!", and repeating it throughout the half.
Our seats were in the upper deck near the west goal line (view above), but we saw very little action, so I moved down at halftime and stood on the concourse behind the Argonaut bench. This offered a better view and not a single usher asked me to leave. Even then, nothing happened on the field as Argo QB Ricky Ray could not generate any offense. That's him below scampering for a few yards. Ray was intercepted midway through the quarter and Ottawa used the field position to add another field goal and take a 12-7 lead into the final frame.
Early in the fourth, Ray connected with Darvin Adams for a 20-yard touchdown, the only major of the evening. The teams then exchanged field goals over the next few possessions, with Toronto's coming with just 1:33 left. Given how anemic the Ottawa offense had been up to then (Chevon Walker, running below, was the star with 60 yards on 12 carries), it looked like the Argos would escape with a win.
By now, we had moved down to the west end zone, where a grass berm separates fans from the field. Many had chosen to stand here as it provides a quick escape to the street after the game. It also happened to be where the play of the game occurred. With a minute to go, Henry Burris hit Kierrie Johnson with a perfect pass for 43 yards to the Argo 21-yard line, just in front of the berm. Johnson had dropped a sure touchdown in the first half, but atoned for his mistake with a superb grab over his left shoulder. After a clock-killing run, Brett Maher had no trouble kicking his sixth field goal of the night (below) to give the Redblacks the 18-17 lead. Toronto had 28 seconds to do something, but Ray was intercepted on the last play of the game and the hometown fans had something to cheer about after eight long years in the football wilderness.
This was an ugly game with 21 penalties, including a few stupid ones from Toronto that allowed Ottawa to maintain drives. Ottawa ran a fake punt play for a first down and did not commit a turnover and that was the difference in a game that disappointed only the Argo fans in attendance. Congrats to Redblacks fans and let's hope the team is still there 120 years from now!
There is only one scoreboard behind the west end zone, which is why this picture is at such an odd angle. It is quite nice but they need some more ribbon boards to display in-game statistics. Other than that and the few glitches before the game, this was a great experience and I'm glad I was able to go. I am sure things will get worked out in time for the next home contest. Sadly, I will be back in New York and starting a new job, and thus unable to attend, but if you are in the Ottawa area, make plans to see the Redblacks in their inaugural season.
Monday, July 14, 2014
Over the past month, soccer fans put aside their jobs and families and spent nearly every day glued to the television set to watch 64 soccer games. The tournament was fantastic even though the knockout stages were a bit disappointing, with new stars emerging and old ones taking their final bow. Germany became the first European nation to win the World Cup in the Americas, while the US performance coupled with some great coverage by ESPN brought soccer to a new audience in America.
I have a few stats to pass along, and a brief essay on the future of the game in the United States.
Despite a rather ignominious ending for Brazil and a final defeat for Argentina, the six South American sides combined for the best record among the five confederations. This excludes matches between teams in the same confederation, while matches that went to penalty kicks are considered draws. Yes, Costa Rica and the Netherlands officially have no losses in the tournament record, along with Germany. The standings are in W-L-D format.
South America (CONMEBOL) 15- 6-3 Europe (UEFA) 20-10-11 North America (CONCACAF) 5- 6-5 Africa (CAF) 3-11-3 Asia (AFC) 0- 9-3
In 2010, South American squads went 12-6-6 to take the overall best record despite not winning anything meaningful then either. Asian clubs regressed after a 4-6-7 record in South Africa.
There were 171 goals scored (2.67 per game), with 126 of those coming during the run of play, nearly 2 per contest.
There were 12 penalty goals (with one miss by France's Benzema against the Swiss) and 5 own goals, including the first score in the tournament.
Only 3 goals were scored directly from free kicks, such as the scorcher from David Luiz against Colombia, while another 7 were scored indirectly from a free kick, with the wonderful strike from Claudio Marchisio against England one of the highlights. A further 18 goals came from corner kicks, so only 28 total from set pieces.
Of the 126 scored during the run of play, 14 came from shots outside the box (James Rodriguez against Uruguay the most notable), 15 from shots in the crease (such as Clint Dempsey's go-ahead goal against Portugal), 16 from headers (Silvestre Varela's last second tying marker in the same game) and 12 from rebounds (such as Thomas Müller's game-winner over the USA). The other 69 goals came from shots inside the box, including the final one from Mario Götze.
Obviously you can categorize these differently as you wish, for example that Müller goal came off a corner and was a shot outside the box, but Howard had saved the first shot so it was no longer a set piece, and the rebound trumps the shot outside the box.
The Future of Soccer in America
I watched the final at a bar yesterday and it was great to see it full of fans new to the game. Some pundits have written that American soccer can use the tournament to grow itself beyond its current status, becoming a true major league sport. I am not so sure. The World Cup is simply the best sporting event out there, with the best players from all over the world competing for a full month. The Euro might have more quality with no weaklings invited, but nothing captures the imagination like a relative minnow beating a world power, such as Costa Rica did against both Uruguay and Italy. This is simply not replicable in domestic competition.
I watched some of the Portland-Seattle tilt on Sunday night and it was mildly entertaining, but without the narrative that will attract casual fans. Furthermore, the best soccer players in the world are playing in Europe for the most part. Sports fans in North America get the best players in baseball, football, hockey, and basketball and are likely to expect the best in soccer too. Having a few USMNT players in the league helps but we really want to see big names, and not those on the downside of their careers.
Another problem is the existing soccer snobs, referred to as snoccers by Dan Patrick, who seem to want to keep new fans out. This is how niche culture protects itself, by pretending it is more than it is. Art, music, film - all have snobby fans that denigrate those who prefer more mainstream pursuits, while at the same time desperately wishing they could be mainstream themselves. We all want validation. If you enjoy soccer and want it to succeed, invite fans of all kinds in and stop thinking you are special because you discovered the game three years ago. Oh, and if you are the worst kind of fan who refuses to use the word soccer in America, remember the word originated in England as a short form for Association Football. Only when it became popular stateside did the English decide to stop using it. American football is the dominant sport here, so quit being a pretentious douche and use soccer without smirking.
I would love for soccer to become more popular here but it is going to take a lot of work from the league. The season is similar to that of baseball, and with MLB games taking over 3 hours now, perhaps a direct attack on America's pastime could increase fan interest, along with aggressive expansion focusing on keeping the game American. We have a new team joining the MLS next season, New York City FC, playing out of Yankee Stadium. As Keith Olbermann said, let's not copy the Europeans, instead, give the teams real nicknames. "Why not the New York Yankees here too?" Olbermann asked. Last night's game was between the Sounders and Timbers, two great monikers that describe the Pacific Northwest location of the clubs. Let's have all MLS teams with nicknames and stop trying to emulate Europe.
The next big tournament is the 2015 Copa America (June 11-July 4 in Chile) followed immediately by the 2015 Gold Cup (July 7-26). I'd like to see the US invited to the Copa America in place of Jamaica as it would increase the profile of the team here and give them top sides to play against. Despite the good showing in the World Cup, CONCACAF teams in general aren't that strong. The USMNT could gain invaluable experience by scheduling more friendlies against top competition, but there is nothing like a world-class tournament to improve. if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best and once every four years is just not enough meaningful games. Whatever happens though, it will be interesting to follow along as soccer strives to gain widespread acceptance in the United States.
Wednesday, July 9, 2014
After checking out Staten Island the other day, I wanted to compare New York's other minor league ballpark. MCU Park on Coney Island hosts the Brooklyn Cyclones and they conveniently had a morning doubleheader yesterday starting at 11:30. I knew I wouldn't stay for both games with the World Cup semifinal at 4 pm, but this would be my last chance to visit on a weekday for some time so I woke early and headed out.
I took the Q train all the way from Astoria to the final stop at Coney Island, an 80-minute ride made all the more entertaining by my friend Mike "King" Casiano, who happened to be on the same car that I boarded. He's been watching baseball since 1963 and he does not look kindly on some of the recent changes in strategy, such as using three pitchers in an inning. Just asking about the most recent Met game will bring forth a string of invective that results in a lot of stares from fellow passengers.
Anyway, the ballpark is just a few minutes away from the subway stop, located right next to the theme park on Coney Island making for a unique view beyond left field. The newest roller coaster "Thunderbolt" is visible in the photo above. The theme park motif is felt throughout the ballpark and the game, with constant advertisements being blared over the PA and over-the-top promotions on the field. I just tuned it out after a while. There is no doubt Staten Island is a better place to watch a game - it is less crowded and offers baseball as the prime attraction instead of noise. There are few seats with shade as you can see below, another minor annoyance on a hot afternoon such as this.
To be fair it was Camp Day, which meant about 4,000 kids in attendance which ratcheted up the noise a few decibels. Counselors had plenty of extra tickets but they were not giving them away, asking $5 each, a fair price given that the cheapest at the box office were $10. It took a while to get in with the kids lined up at each entrance, so by the time I found my seat, it was time for first pitch.
Marcos Molina started for the Cyclones coming in having given up just 1 earned run in 18 innings. The Mets #10 prospect according to Baseball Prospectus, Molina just turned 19 and is in his third season with the organization, having been signed out of the Dominican Republic. He certainly looked strong today, keeping Renegade hitters like Bralin Jackson (below, 5th round, 2012) off balance throughout his appearance. After four hitless innings, the murmurs of an abbreviated no-hitter (minor league doubleheaders are only seven innings) began to make the rounds, but Wilmer Dominguez singled with two out in the fifth to end that hope.
The Cyclones scored in the first on a double steal of second and home, and added two more in the fourth on a huge homer from Michael Bernal to give Molina more than enough for the win, his second of the campaign. Josh Prevost (5th, 2014, out of Seton Hall) pitched the final two frames for Brooklyn, retiring all six men he faced to preserve the one-hitter. Enderson Franco pitched a 6-inning complete game in taking the loss. The game took just 96 minutes for 173 pitches, a wonderfully quick 1.8 PPM.
It took 45 minutes to get the second game underway, and I wanted to leave around 2:30 to get home in time for the Germany Brazil game. Brooklyn made it difficult by not getting a hit for three innings, and I debated whether to stay, as leaving a no-hitter, even in the minor leagues, would be a mistake for which I would never forgive myself. Fortunately, the Cyclones managed a single in the bottom of the fourth and I headed back, making it home in time to see Germany run rampant. The final score of the second game was 3-0 Hudson Valley, with the Cyclones managing only two hits, essentially the ¥ opposite of the first game.
Ottawa! The RedBlacks have brought the CFL back to Canada's capital and I'll be there for the home opener next Friday. I'll have a big announcement before that though, so check back often to see what it might be!
Monday, July 7, 2014
I've been pretty down on MLB lately. The overly slow games coupled with Toronto's June swoon have left me with no enthusiasm for following the sport. Fortunately, New York City has a couple of minor league teams that are just an hour away from where I live, and with most 2014 draftees signed and assigned, I can start to follow future stars. The Blue Jays moved their short-season affiliate from Auburn to Vancouver a few years back, so I won't be seeing any of their draft picks, but the other AL East teams are all in this league, so I can scout future enemies of the Blue Jays.
Yesterday saw the Hudson Valley Renegades (Tampa Bay) visiting the Staten Island Yankees in a late afternoon start, while Brooklyn hosted Aberdeen at 1 pm. The Wimbledon final went long enough to eliminate the earlier game from my list of options, so after a brief subway ride to Bowling Green, I took the Staten Island Ferry to reach Richmond County Bank Ballpark. The ride is free and takes about 25 minutes from Whitehall Terminal in Manhattan, usually leaving on the half-hour. It passes by the Statue of Liberty (above).
You are dropped off at St. George and from there, you have a view of the New York Harbor and Manhattan skyline beyond. The ballpark is just a couple of minutes away from here.
Tickets start at $9 and despite this being a beautiful Sunday, only 1,904 other fans showed up, so I was able to sit where I pleased. The sun sets beyond third base, so there is a lot of shade underneath the overhang for the entire game.
Great views of the skyline can be had along the first base line, and you will see a few large ships passing as well. Really one of the minors' more unique settings and a great place to escape the crush of New York City.
There were two relatively high 2014 draft picks making starts in this game. Jonathan Holder (below), a reliever who was dominant at Mississippi State and was drafted by the Yankees in the 6th round (182nd overall) made his first start after a couple of appearances in the Gulf Coast League. Holder sported long hair and a goatee in college, but as you can see below, the Yankees rules on facial hair are enforced all the way through their system.
His opponent was Chris Pike (below), drafted in the 9th round (277th overall) by Tampa Bay. Pike played 3 years at Fordham and spent his final year in the NAIA at Oklahoma City University where he tossed a perfect game in March.
The most notable name was Casey Gillaspie (below), Tampa Bay's fist rounder this year (20th overall). Brother of Conor of the White Sox, Gillaspie played for Wichita State and signed for $2 million. His early numbers show a few too many strikeouts but he's just 18 games into his pro career so it is not something to be concerned about just yet.
The game started fast, with both pitchers working quickly and batters swinging freely - the first two innings took just half an hour. In the bottom of the third, the Yankees plated a couple with Austin Aune (2nd, 2012) contributing an RBI double.
As mentioned, Holder was a reliever in college and it appears as if they are trying to convert him to a starter. His arm isn't ready for the extended workload though, so he was removed after just three innings and 40 pitches, and David Palladino (5th, 2013, above) was brought in. Pike lasted 60 pitches and four frames before being replaced by Darren Fischer (16th, 2013).
Although the first four innings took just over an hour, the relievers did not have the same control and the rest of the game was filled with walks, wild pitches, and errors. The Renegades scored three in the top of the 5th, including a 2-RBI single from Gillaspie, but Staten Island regained the lead in the bottom half when Ty McFarland (10th, 2014) doubled home Devyn Bolasky (31st, 2014) and then scored himself after a wild pitch and Aune RBI single. Both teams added single runs in the sixth, with McFarland's second error of the game contributing to Hudson Valley's unearned run, and then the Renegades added two in the seventh to take the lead for good. Braxton Lee (12th, 2014) bunted for a single and advanced to third when Palladino threw the ball past first. A wild pitch brought Lee home to tie the game at 5. After a walk to Jace Conrad (13th, 2014), Rony Bautista relieved and walked two more, with the second walk coming on a wild pitch that allowed Conrad to score the go-ahead run from second base.
Conrad singled to lead off the 9th and stole second and third behind an apparently unconcerned Bautista. After Gillaspie struck out, Hunter Lockwood (11th, 2013) hit a sacrifice fly to make it 7-5. This turned out to be the difference as Isaias Tejada homered in the bottom half but that was all they could manage as Hudson Valley won 7-6. The Renegades are now 16-5 and on an 8-game winning streak.
Despite scoring 7 runs, Hudson Valley had only 3 RBIs. Two runs scored on wild pitches, one on an error, and one on a double play ground out.
The game lasted 3:06 but 314 pitches were thrown for a peppy 1.68 PPM. Again, long games are not the problem in MLB, it is the slow pace!
It is interesting to see the mix of players on rosters at this level. Aune, for example, was drafted out of high school, so even though he was picked in the 2nd round, he spent two years in the Gulf Coast League before finally moving up to short season ball. There are players from early rounds all the way down to the mid-30s. Few baseball fans (including me) really understand how organizations manage their minor league systems; most players are just filler with no real hope of making the majors. As an example, of the 41 minor leaguers who appeared for Staten Island in 2014, only 7 made it to The Show, with most just enjoying a cup of coffee. Phil Coke is the most recognizable name among them.
On the way back to Manhattan, stand at the front of the ferry to get pictures of the skyline as you approach.
The Brooklyn Cyclones are home for a morning doubleheader tomorrow and I'll head down to check that out before the World Cup semi-final. I am then heading back to Canada and will be in Ottawa for the RedBlacks home opener on July 18th. Check back for recaps of both those events.
Sunday, July 6, 2014
OK, I know that this is a pretty obvious statistic, but the phrasing looks awfully similar. Hey ESPN, why not just hire me instead?
WC semifinals will feature a South American side against one from Europe. So far, SA leads series 8-2-1.
— Sean MacDonald (@sportsroadtrips) July 5, 2014
Both #WorldCup semifinal matches feature teams from Europe vs South America. South America is 8-2-1 against Europe so far in 2014 WC.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) July 6, 2014
Saturday, July 5, 2014
I am an idiot. Just two days ago, I wrote a post about MLB games getting slower and slower. So what did I do yesterday to celebrate the 4th of July? Went to another MLB game. In my defense, the pitching matchup featured Yu Darvish against Jonathon Niese, which promised to be a relatively quick game. I had never seen Darvish pitch before, including my time in Japan, so I thought it was the best chance to see him strut his stuff, particularly against a weak Mets squad that ranks 14th in the NL in slugging. As I shopped for a ticket on StubHub, I noticed a bargain in the Delta Club section: a $170 face value ticket for just $49. Without thinking twice, I snapped it up and was glad I did. The seats were of the padded variety as you can see below, and that came in mighty handy as the game turned into another insanely long affair.
The view of the action from this section was OK as you can see below, but the unnecessary additional fencing bisected the hitter, which was mildly annoying and precluded any other pictures.
Being July 4th, the teams had their special "Stars and Stripes" caps on, with the American flag in a star behind the team logo. Hurry, buy one now!
The game started ominously when Shin-Soo Choo belted a Niese offering over the center field fence to lead off. After Elvis Andrus singled, Alex Rios lined a shot off Niese's back. Niese recovered to throw out Rios, but was taken out of the game by Terry Collins without even trying to throw another pitch. Niese was none too happy, tossing his glove and knocking over a bubble gum container on his way to the dressing room. Carlos Torres came in and got the remaining two outs quickly, but the inning took over 15 minutes with the injury replacement. Note that if every half inning took 15 minutes, games would be 4½ hours.
In the bottom half, Darvish looked out of sorts after giving up a double to Curtis Granderson. Bobby Abreu singled him home and then Lucas Duda hit a two run homer that required a brief umpire conference to confirm it hit the top of the fence above the orange line. When Travis d'Arnaud finally struck out, another 16 minutes had passed. Including the three-minute break as the teams switched (supposed to be 2:05, but who's counting), the first frame took 34 minutes. I silently cursed myself for believing this game would be any different.
Darvish recovered and retired the side in order through the second and third as the Rangers grabbed another run off Torres. The Mets got that one back in the fourth and then Adrian Beltre crushed a line shot in the 5th to make it 4-3. Citi Field is the 40th ballpark in which Beltre has homered, a record for active players (Carlos Beltran is second at 38). At the halfway point, more than 2 hours had passed, and things just kept getting worse.
The Rangers tied it in the 7th on an unearned run off Jeurys Familia and the spectre of extra innings loomed. Thankfully d'Arnaud doubled home a pair in the bottom of the 8th off Jason Frasor and although Texas tacked on a singleton in the 9th, the game ended when Robinson Chirinos popped out, a ball that was caught by second baseman Daniel Murphy ranging all the way to shortstop due to the swirling winds. The game finished at 11:19 pm, 4 hours and 8 minutes after it started. There were 11 walks (every pitcher except Niese walked at least one batter) and a number of pickoff attempts, mound conferences, and otherwise silly delays. According to Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star Telegram, it was the longest "nine-inning game in MLB history in which home didn't didn't bat and fewer than 13 runs scored". Unbelievable. I noted that neither recap on MLB.com made reference to this statistic. MLB knows their sport is in trouble, but they are doing their best to keep fans from understanding just how terrible the average game has become.
I have received some criticism in other quarters for my attempts to enlighten fans about the trends that are threatening to make baseball the dullest sport out there. Baseball fans have been brainwashed to think that the game is beautiful in any form. It is not. The game needs pace to be enjoyable. Nobody wants nine inning games that last longer than four hours. Nobody. If you are a real baseball fan, you will be alarmed at the trends. If you are part of the mindless masses on the other hand, you will just ignore these signs and believe the hype emanating from MLB headquarters. Baseball is America's pastime. Actually, sitting around watching millionaires talk about strategy and scratch themselves is now America's pastime.
Amazingly, few of the 30,377 on hand left, waiting for the fireworks show after the game. That is one way to keep your audience captive. I did not hang around, taking the picture above from the subway station as the show started. On the way home, I stopped at Donovan's Pub, a regular watering hole for some friends of mine after Friday night Mets games. We sat around and complained about the abomination we had just endured, waxing about the good old days. Yes, I am one of those guys now.
That is it for me and MLB in NYC this season. The game that I grew up watching has disappeared and it isn't coming back anytime soon. It isn't worth five hours (including the time to get to and from the ballpark) to watch such garbage from teams I don't really care about. I'll still travel for the Jays when possible, and the minors are always a welcome respite, but until 2015 at least, Yankee Stadium and Citi Field can be torture chambers for fans other than myself.
Thursday, July 3, 2014
With the World Cup on a two-day break, I headed back to Yankee Stadium on Wednesday afternoon, against my better judgement. The Rays were in town to close out a three-game series and if you read this blog on occasion, you know that the Rays are by far the slowest team in the game.
Using my soon-to-be-world-famous metric, Pitches Per Minute (PPM), which simply divides the number of pitches by the number of minutes in a game to give you an idea of the pace, the Rays are last in MLB at 1.483. The quickest team is the Blue Jays at 1.642, meaning the typical Toronto tilt runs at a pace 10% faster than an average Rays game, helped by Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey who are fast workers. (As a benchmark, a three-hour game with 300 pitches has a PPM of 1.67, while the fastest-paced season was in 2004 when PPM was 1.711.) Still, I love afternoon baseball and had found a cheap ticket on StubHub an hour before the game, so I ignored the evidence and went to the ballpark hoping for the best, only to be brutally punished for my optimism.
The Rays won 5-3 in a game that lasted 3:32 and featured 9 pitchers. Joe Maddon made two stupid challenges that were clearly correctly called by the umps, adding another five minutes to my misery. I can't stand the way he slowly shuffles out, like 40,000 fans have nothing better to do than watch him question the umpires. Both times it was immediately obvious that he was wrong. Aargh! Maddon leads the majors with 28 challenges, of which only 10 have been overturned (35%). No wonder Tampa games are so slow. By the end of it, 321 pitches had been thrown over those 212 minutes, a PPM of 1.514, actually slightly faster than a typical Rays game but still a very slow pace.
Having this horrible team play excruciatingly slow baseball in Tropicana Field is a bad idea on all fronts. There is a reason that Tampa Bay fans stay away in droves - they want to be excited in the outdoors, not lulled to sleep in that cavernous ballpark by another pitching change, pickoff move, or batting glove adjustment. The baseball gods have had enough of maddening Maddon and Tampa suffers in last place because of it, even after a five-game winning streak.
Updated PPM Stats
At the beginning of the season, I wrote a detailed post on just how slow MLB games have become. Now that the season is half over (1268 of the 2430 games have been played), I thought I'd update those stats to see if maybe April was a bit of an outlier. Sadly, it wasn't.
The average game time remains at 3:08, the longest in history. Only 44% of games are under 3 hours, and only 5.5% under 2:30. Unfortunately, the average number of pitches per game, which was 296 early in the season, has dropped to 292.6. The PPM has therefore also dropped to 1.555. In other words, the pace of an average MLB game has declined by 9% since 2004.
The statistic that should really get you thinking though is Runs Per Hour (RPH). Simply put, RPH is the number of runs that you see for every hour you sit at the ballpark. Unlike PPM, which requires reliable pitching data (only available from 1997), RPH can be calculated as long as game times have been recorded. I realize that this is not a perfect stat for measuring excitement, but generally fans come to see runs, and with pitching dominating these days, they are not getting many of them, especially considering that they need to spend an extra 30-45 minutes to watch an entire game.
In April, RPH was 2.672, about the same as the 1968 season, which is famous for being dominated by pitching and led to the lowering of the mound in 1969. Now, RPH has dropped to 2.635, the lowest on record. In other words, Major League Baseball is suffering through its least exciting season, as you can see in the graph above (which only includes seasons from 1955 onward). As recently as 2006, RPH was 3.4; in just eight years the number of runs per hour has dropped 22.5%!
Don't be fooled by the MLB hype, you are seeing less runs for every minute of action then at any time in baseball history. It is easy to obscure this fact in highlight packages, and don't expect the drooling baseball media who worship the game to investigate this claim either. If you love baseball, you know that the game is simply not the same as it was just a decade ago and you are probably not happy about it.
With the World Cup showing fans that soccer may not be as boring as first thought, baseball is in trouble. Not right now of course, I am talking years down the road. If the MLS can get its act together, soccer could overtake baseball in popularity within a generation or two. A two-hour soccer game with 2 or 3 goals is more appealing than a four-hour baseball game with 2 or 3 runs, right?