Monday, August 12, 2019

Northern Trust Open (PGA Tour, FedEx Cup Playoffs) - August 10, 2019

I'm not a huge golf fan as I prefer team sports where I can see all the action, and that have a definite result within a few hours or less (test cricket is the exception). But when there is a tournament in my backyard that is easily accessible and the weather is perfect, I am willing to pay the big bucks to see the stars of the PGA tour spoil their afternoon walks. Such was the case this past weekend, when the Northern Trust Open was held at the Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City. This was the first event of the 2019 FedEx Cup Playoffs, which meant the top 125 players would be eligible. To show you how little I follow golf, I only recognized 30 of these names, mostly from their winning majors.

When I went on Saturday, only 85 players were still swinging their clubs after making the cut. My buddy Andrew brought his boys and we took the PATH train to Newport, where we caught a free shuttle to the main entrance (above). Ferries from Brookfield Place are also available, but at $25 round-trip, not quite worth the time savings.

Past winners are honoured with banners as you make your way to the gates. This is where you will also find some scalpers, who will save you a few bucks off the box office price of $75 for grounds admission.

You enter the course near the 5th tee, which has a large water hazard to the left of the fairway (above). Pick up a pairings program, which includes a good map of the course.

Leaderboards can be found at various spots around the course, and let you know who is leading, as well as who is playing the hole closest to the board. Golf has not missed out on the statistics craze and it is impressive to see stats such as average distance to the pin from this range for each golfer.

The highlights of the course are the views of the Statue of Liberty (middle background above) and the Manhattan skyline (from the 18th fairway below).

There are several hospitality options for those who can afford them, although the Anchor Club, which sits between the 2nd hole and 18th fairway, is only $160-185 depending on the day.

There were lots of big names, including leader Dustin Johnson (middle below) who started the day at -12, and Jordan Spieth (left) who was one shot behind. Both finished +3 on the day to fall out of contention. Unlike my last PGA tournament in Greensboro back in 2015, photography and video was allowed here.

The crowd was relatively small, and there was no trouble finding spots to watch each hole as you desired. I watched the final holes of the fourth round and saw that it was considerably busier then.

Below is the 18th green, with more hospitality suites overlooking. Definitely worth trying to get some corporate hookups here.

What surprised me the most is how quickly the afternoon passes. We were there for four hours, but it seemed like half that. Since you can walk around, and see several different holes from any number of viewpoints, it keeps things moving, and the breeze off the water was enough to stay relatively cool. I'll definitely be back when the tournament returns in 2021.


Patrick Reed took the lead on this day, finishing at -14 and held on to win the tournament the next day, defeating Abraham Ancer by a stroke. Harold Varner III was the big winner though, as his T3 finish vaulted him 71 places up the FedEx Cup standings so that the will contest the next round of the playoffs. That would be the BMW Championship in Medinah, Illinois, where the top 70 players in the FedEx Cup standings will compete. After that, the top 30 players in the standings will move to the Tour Championship in Atlanta, with a special scoring system in place. An exciting finish to the 2019 PGA season lies ahead.



Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Frisco RoughRiders 1 at Amarillo Sod Poodles 2 (Texas League) - August 4, 2019

After witnessing my first MLB no-hitter the night before, I made my way to Amarillo, the original destination for this trip. Having seen the no-no, I felt like it was time to try new things, so when I was given a pickup at the rental car agency, I accepted. I even tried a new fast food place, WienerSchnitzel, whose $5 special includes a chili cheese dog, a chili cheeseburger, and chili cheese fries. Seems healthy enough.

Of course, the reason why I was in Amarillo was to see one of three new minor league ballparks this season, namely HODGETOWN (use all caps according to team management), home of the Sod Poodles. I had planned to wait until 2020 to add this park to my count, as the Texas Rangers are opening their new digs then and I could combine them into one trip. But as I perused the Sod Poodles schedule, I happened to notice that they would have having a stadium replica giveaway (above) on August 4. These are the only giveaways I enjoy, and as I was able to get a mileage ticket back on Monday, I decided to spend the money for the ticket there.

After flying in from Houston, getting my pickup truck, and checking into my hotel, I headed over to the stadium, which is right downtown on Buchanan Street, and easily accessible off I-40. The main entrance is already an iconic part of minor league baseball, with the large, round art deco facade. Art deco infuses other elements of the exterior, such as the vertical tickets sign below. The name is also unique in the minors, being just one word and lacking any sort of Field, Park, or Stadium in it. Hodge refers to Jerry Hodge, a community leader who was a primary supporter of the effort to bring affiliated ball back to Amarillo, while Town has several meanings, including being "defined in the Prairie Dog culture as 'multiple colonies forming one large community'", according to the team's website.

I showed up about two hours before gates opened and found a free parking spot on 8th Avenue, half a block away from the stadium. Parking is free after 5 p.m. on weekdays and all day on weekends, so you shouldn't have to pay the $5 to park in team-operated lots.

I picked up a $6 SRO ticket at this time, and wandered around a bit. Fans were already lining up for the giveaway despite the 96-degree heat; those at the season ticket entrance (above) are admitted 30 minutes earlier than the regular fans, which still meant nearly 90 minutes baking in the sun.

The Sod Poodles have done an excellent job marketing their team and have several different logos, three of which were visible on an office window. (above) A Sod Poodle is another name for a prairie dog, which are common in the surrounding area.

I found a hotel bar just a block away and enjoyed the air conditioning and a couple of beverages there before returning to the main entrance just before gates where scheduled to open. There was a small lineup, but with 1,000 stadium replicas to be handed out, no worries for me, or even those who showed up a few minutes after gates opened.

Once inside, I immediately made my way to the drink rail behind home plate and planted my scorebook there to reserve my spot. The view from there is above. I still prefer standing at these rails because I can spread out a bit more than when at a seat, although as I get older, I find it more difficult to stand the whole nine innings. Fortunately, most ushers are kind enough to let me take a seat for the last inning or two.

With my spot secured, I did the tour of the ballpark. The pictures above and below are from the section just behind home plate and show the seating configuration down each line. Seats here are not the usual Kelly green variety, but instead grey and made of a lighter plastic.

The concourse is spacious and offers views of the field from wherever you are.

There are four permanent concession stands, each with a different name and specialty menu, though each also offer the generic menu of hot dogs, pretzels, peanuts, and other typical fare. Feed and Seed offered a variety of treats, including a generous serving of ice cream on a sugar cone for $3.75. This was one of the few bargains I found, as food prices were a bit higher than I'm used to at AA. Beer was particularly expensive, with craft options going for $10, more than I've seen at any minor league park.

As I moved around the concourse, I took pictures from a variety of angles. Below you can see the suite level above the seating bowl. This area is closed off to regular ticket holders, but I did hear there is an amazing lounge right above home plate. A couple offered to show me the area, but I was too busy scoring the game to take them up on their offer.

Looking toward right field, you can see the berm. Surprisingly, they say that you need a specific lawn ticket to sit here; SRO tickets like I had would not be honoured. I suppose that is to stop the berm from overflowing, but I can't imagine too many people with regular seats choosing to forgo those to sit on the lawn.

There is a very spacious kids area well away from the concourse, minimizing the chance of stray foul balls.

The big attraction for Hodgetown is for groups. There are five different types of hospitality area, such as the picnic patio below. There is no doubt that these days, going to sporting events is more of a social event than actually watching the game, and it makes sense for teams to cater to them with these options.

The view of the stadium structure from right field, above the berm.

The scoreboard is above left field and quite nice for this level. During the game, the linescore is at the bottom, player stats and replays at the top, and the batting lineup to the right.

There are some irregularities in the shape of the outfield fence, as you can see below.

Moving over to left field, there are tables that are open to anyone. These would be nice for a night game, but on a hot afternoon like this one, it was better to be in the shade.

Bar 352 is a full-service bar that is 352 feet from home plate.

The view down the left field line. Generally, the third base side is shaded during afternoon games.

Another picnic area, which seemed to be open to the public on this day, as there were no reserved signs on these tables.

A view back across the diamond from the left field corner. Always nice to see the bullpens in the field.

The mascot is Ruckus and there is a giant bobblehead of him right behind home plate. I stood right behind him so I am in a lot of pictures I am sure.

The real mascot is extremely energetic, running around the concourse and waving and dancing constantly. Very impressive considering the weight of the costume and the heat.

Overall, HODGETOWN is a great new ballpark that seems to have something for everyone. The main entrance is one of the most alluring in all of the minors and the unique stadium name shows creativity and a desire to be different. Of course, there is no history or "Road to the Show" display yet, but I am sure that will be added as the seasons pass. I think the Sod Poodles will be a mainstay in the Texas Panhandle for years to come and look forward to a return visit sometime.

The Game

Frisco (Texas) was in town to finish up a four-game set against the Sod Poodles (San Diego), who started Lake Bachar (5th round, 2016) against Edgar Arredondo. Despite neither pitcher being considered a top prospect, we ended up with a pitcher's duel. It wasn't until the bottom of the 4th that a run scored as Owen Miller (3rd, 2018) doubled home Brad Zunica (15th, 2015). The RoughRiders got that back in the 5th as Ryan Dorow (30th, 2017) crushed a ball to left, one of only 3 hits given up by Bachar in his 6.2 innings. It remained tied until the 8th, when Zunica rapped a two-out single off Jonathan Hernandez (Rangers #12 prospect) that scored Buddy Reed (2nd, 2016, Padres #29 prospect). David Bednar (35th, 2016) came in to pitch a perfect 9th for this 10th save of the season as the Sod Poodles won a quick one, 2-1 in 2:29.


With an upcoming visit to Las Vegas, I will again be current with all 160 active minor league ballparks. That trip will also include the Jays in Dodger Stadium as I continue my Toronto on the Road quest. Check back for recaps in a couple of weeks.



Monday, August 5, 2019

Seattle Mariners 0 at Houston Astros 9 (Combined No-Hitter) - August 3, 2019

This past weekend I went to Amarillo to see the Sod Poodles at Hodgetown, one of three new minor league ballparks to open this season. There are obviously no direct flights from New York to Amarillo, so I had a connection in Houston. I've had a lot of bad luck recently in flights with cancellations, diversions, and delays leading to missed games, so with that in mind, I checked out what was happening in Houston on Saturday night, just in case. Turned out that the Astros were home at 6:10, while the Houston Dynamo of the MLS had a game at 8. I had never been to BBVA Compass Stadium, so I planned to attend the soccer should I have some travel difficulties.

Sure enough, my flight from LGA to Bush Intercontinental (IAH) was delayed 90 minutes, and it looked like I would miss the connection to Amarillo. But no, that flight was delayed an hour, so I went to the gate area to wait. Shortly thereafter, I was notified that the flight would be delayed another hour, meaning that I would the start of the game in Amarillo. I had scheduled two nights there just in case this happened, so now it was decision time: miss a couple of innings of minor-league ball or rearrange everything and stay in Houston for baseball and/or soccer. United made it an easy choice by allowing me to rebook a flight Sunday morning without penalty, and I was able to modify my hotel and car reservations without as well. I then found a downtown hotel using points, and took a bus there that costs $1.25, taking just under an hour. I reached my hotel around 4:30, giving me time to grab a bite at the bar and watch the Astros Hall of Fame Induction on TV there.

Turns out the Astros had not had a team Hall of Fame until now and this was the game that they were inducting the first 16 members, including Mike Scott (display case above), Joe Morgan, Joe Niekro, and J.R. Richard (all three below).

Other members include Nolan Ryan, Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, and Shane Reynolds, who was signing autographs during the game (below).

From the pictures above, you probably deduced that I had decided to go to the game after all, lured by the Astros starting Aaron Sanchez, making his first appearance after being traded from Toronto. As well, my friend Sharpy, who has seen several ex-Jays suddenly become stars on their new team, predicted that Sanchez would throw a no-hitter.

I eventually got a ticket for $10 from a scalper, and stood on the lower concourse facing down the first base line (view above). My plan was to leave a few minutes before the soccer game, with the stadiums virtually next door. Of course, Sanchez (warming up below) was pitching very well as Sharpy had predicted, and had given up no hits through three innings, then four, then five, and then six, while his offense mustered 6 runs. However, Sanchez had issued 2 walks and hit a batter among his 92 pitches, and that was enough to get him removed. So much for the no-hitter. At least the single-pitcher type.

But combined no-hitters are a thing, and Will Harris came in for the 7th, walking Domingo Santana but getting J.P. Crawford to hit into a double play. In the 8th, after Houston had tacked on one more run, Joe Biagini, another ex-Jay making his Astro debut, came in and gave up a walk but no hits. By now, the soccer game, which had been delayed due to weather, was about to start, so I left the no-hitter and walked over to BBVA Compass Stadium. Ha! Of course, I did no such thing, but it amazed me how many fans walked out at that time. Just wait 15-20 minutes and you might see baseball history. The Astros took their time in the 8th, plating another pair before Chris Devenski came in to close things out. By now, the soccer game was 30 minutes in, making it no longer an option for a new stadium visit, so I really wanted the no-hitter. And Devenski delivered, inducing a Kyle Seager groundout, striking out Omar Narvaez, and going to a full count on Daniel Vogelbach before getting him to loft an easy fly ball to Josh Reddick in right. Fans cheered, the Astros celebrated (below) and I jumped up and down having finally seen a major league no-hitter. Yeah, it was a combined one, but only the 14th one in MLB history, so still worth a blog post.

The funniest part was as I was walking up the stairs, I passed several rows of very glum individuals. It took me a second to realize that it was the Mariners family section and they were decidedly not happy at having seen the 12th no-hitter in Astros history, second-most in the majors since they joined in 1962 behind the Dodgers 13. It was also the second time the Mariners had been no-hit this season, both times combined efforts.

In the end, I was amazed at how the day worked out. First, my flight to Amarillo was delayed just enough to get me thinking about changing plans; then I was able to rebook all my arrangements without charge; then Aaron Sanchez was starting (I probably would have gone if it were Verlander or Cole too, but not anyone else); then Sharpy predicted the no-hitter, which came to pass. After some bad luck on recent trips, it was nice to have a bit of good luck for a change.



Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Cape Cod League Doubleheader - July 30, 2018

Collegiate wood bat leagues are a brand of baseball that gets little press but offers great value for true fans. These are leagues that start play around the time the college regular season ends, and they invite college players to form teams for a two-month season. One of the motivations of these leagues is to get players accustomed to wood bats, as they use aluminum bats in the college game. According to Wikipedia, there are 66 such leagues scattered around the U.S. and Canada, but the general consensus is that the Cape Cod League is the best. With over 300 current MLB players having spent a season here, it is hard to dispute this claim.

The league was formed in 1885 and consisted mostly of regional players until it was officially sanctioned by the NCAA in 1963. In 1985, they began to use wooden bats and this change led to an increase in popularity among players, coaches, and scouts. There are 10 teams in the league, evenly spread out along the Cape. Each plays at a local ball diamond with no bells and whistles, making it a throwback to a simpler time, when the game was the draw. Games are usually played in the evenings on weekdays and Sunday afternoons, but as the season progresses and games are rained out, make-ups are scheduled for weekday afternoons. With JetBlue offering cheap flights midweek, I was able to make an overnight trip to catch two games this past week.

After picking up a rental car and navigating the ridiculous traffic around the airport, I drove about 20 minutes east to Whitehouse Field, home of the Harwich Mariners. Normally, I like to review the stadiums I visit, but in this case, there isn't one. Instead, you have a couple of tents at which you can make a donation (all games are free in the CCBL) and pick up a roster sheet. As there are no tickets issued, the roster will be your only way to commemorate each venue visit. After the tents, you have the main structure, which houses media and a concession stand. There was also a BBQ nearby offering freshly cooked hot dogs and hamburgers, with reasonable prices.

The restrooms are the cutest I have seen on my travels.

Other than that, there are just several sections of benches. Many fans bring their own chairs and sit right next to the screen, while others sit farther away under the shade of the trees. There is no covered seating here, so the 2 pm start was a bit tough in the 90-degree heat.

The game was only 7 innings long because Harwich had another game that evening, as did visiting Orleans. The star was Harwich's Chris Lanzilli (Wake Forest, participated in the college home run derby, and drafted by San Francisco in the 39th round but did not sign) who hit 3 carbon copy homers over the left field fence, totaling 4 RBIs. Unfortunately, the Mariners gave up 5 runs in the fifth, highlighted by a dropped fly ball by center fielder Joey Wiemer, Jr (Cincinnati), which was followed by two doubles, a single, and a triple. Shay Whitcomb (UCSD, I saw him play at the Division II College World Series back in June) finished a triple shy of the cycle for the Firebirds, who prevailed 8-5. The game took 2:02 by my count (2:06 officially, not sure how they got that) and with just 207 pitches thrown, a great PPM of 1.7.

The next game was a 6 pm start in Hyannis, about 10 miles away. But with Cape Cod traffic, that trip took nearly 45 minutes, excluding a brief stop at my hotel. The venue was McKeon Park, located behind a high school. My phone was dead by then, so I went back the following day to take pictures, which is why there are no other fans in these shots.

The setup is quite similar, with a single structure behind the plate holding the media room and a concession stand. I tried a "Walking Taco" without inquiring as to its ingredients; which turned out to be a small bag of Fritos with a scoop of chili and an unhealthy dollop of nacho cheese on top. It should be called a "Lying Flat on your Back due to a Heart Attack Taco" but I digress.

Again, there are several sections of benches, with many locals preferring their much more comfortable lawn chairs. Foul balls are plentiful and children spend the game chasing them into the surrounding trees.

The field underwent a renovation before this season, with a brand new scoreboard the main addition. The field is now named after longtime league president Judy Walden Scarafile.

There is an osprey nest atop one of the light poles and the birds were quite active during the game, but seemed to be sleeping when I returned the next morning.

Both ballparks are quite bucolic and I can see why the league is so popular among fans. Not only is it relaxing and affordable, the quality of baseball is quite high, rivalling that of Class A in the minors.

In fact, the second game between the Hyannis Harbor Hawks and the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox was one of the best I have seen in some time. Hawks starter Tommy McCollum (Wingate) yielded just a first inning single and a second inning walk in his six frames, and his replacement Landon Kelly's only blemish during his three innings of relief was a hit batsman. Meanwhile, Hyannis scored an unearned run in the fourth when Arizona State's Trevor Hauver doubled and scored on a Buckneresque error by Jack-Thomas Wold (UNLV). This run held up as Hyannis won their final home game of the season 1-0. As the league was allowing ties after 9 innings, I am quite glad that I did not witness a scoreless sister-kisser.

The game took just 2:01 and had 224 pitches, for a remarkable PPM of 1.85, the fastest I have seen in years. Baseball is a pleasure when it moves with a pace like this (i.e. pitchers pitch and hitters hit) and I hope to return next year to see the other eight ballparks in this circuit.


The top four teams in each division make the playoffs, which begin August 1st. Hyannis and Brewster were the unlucky teams to miss the postseason. Cotuit won the championship, beating Harwich 2 games to 0 in the final series.

I went to visit the Cape Cod League Hall of Fame, which was reportedly located at the JFK Museum in Hyannis. But it moved out four years ago, and has yet to find a new home. Amazingly, Google Maps did not have this update, so I informed them, and future visitors should not make the same mistake I did.

Next Up

I've decided to visit Amarillo for two weekend games at Hodgetown, one of the new minor league parks that opened this season.

Two weeks after that, I will be heading to Las Vegas to complete the minor league ballparks once again, and then on to Los Angeles to see the Jays take on the Dodgers. As always, check back for recaps.