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.

Notes

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.

Best,

Sean

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Yomiuri Giants 7 at Yakult Swallows 4 (11) - July 15, 2019


Every year, NPB schedules several neutral-site games around the country. Teams play a regular season game that counts in the standings at a stadium in a region that doesn't see much baseball. During the entire time I lived in Japan, I never once attended one of these games, since many of them were on weeknights and not close to Tokyo, making travel a bit expensive. So when this trip came about, I looked at the schedule hoping to see a neutral-site battle, and was delighted to find that my team Yakult would be taking on the hated Yomiuri Giants in Nagano on Monday, a holiday. What made this perfect is that I had bought a JR Pass for the trip to Niigata the previous weekend, and could use that pass to get to and from Nagano for free on the Shinkansen. So on Monday morning, I headed to Tokyo Station, and 93 minutes later, I was in Nagano, 236 kilometres away. Below is the view of the station from my hotel.



The game was being played at Nagano's Olympic Stadium, which held the opening and closing ceremonies back in 1998. I attended several hockey games during those Olympics, including Canada's shootout loss to the Czech Republic, but had no interest in the ceremonies, so was glad to have a chance to add this venue to my list.



The stadium is located south of the city, close to Shinonoi Station, which is four stops and about 12 minutes away from Nagano. Although there was a shuttle bus from Nagano Station for 1,000 yen round trip, it was cheaper to use my JR Pass to get to Shinonoi and take a shuttle bus from there for 400 yen. I was not the only one doing so; the train was packed with fans. The shuttle bus took about 20 minutes, and dropped us off behind the stadium, forcing us to walk around almost the entire venue to reach the gates.



It is quite the concrete monstrosity, looking more like a Soviet-era venue than one built in futuristic Japan. Large rounded concrete fingers combine to form hands that cup the seating bowl, as you can see above. The surrounding area is now a sports park, and contains the Olympic Cauldron among other attractions, but I did not have time to do a tour.



As I've mentioned before, Japanese ticketing systems do not allow you to pick specific seats when you buy tickets at convenience stores, so I ended up well down the line. The good thing is that my seat was under cover, on the aisle, so I was able to move around quite easily. Seats here are just like most other stadiums in Japan: benches only with molded plastic for each seat. Not comfortable, but you do get used to it.



That was a good thing because unlike most Japanese stadiums, this one allowed standing, and generally free access to everywhere but the good seats behind the plate. So I spent a few innings wandering the various sections.



The upper level was mostly general admission, and these are the tickets that I should have bought, as I could have sat in the open air directly behind the plate. Rain had been forecast, but it stayed away until after the game.



Nagano is surrounded by mountains and the views can be nice before the sun sets.



There are breaks in the action throughout the game, including a couple of long ones when the groundskeepers fix up the bases, during which time some cheerleaders come out and entertain the fans.



When I bought my ticket, I chose an option for Swallows fans, which resulted in me receiving a coupon that I could exchange for a replica jersey created just for this game. Had I known what the jersey would look like, I probably would have chosen otherwise.



The game itself was terrible. The Swallows, playing as the home team, had a 4-3 lead in the 8th when David Huff came in and promptly gave up the tying run. Of course, Yakult could not score in their last couple of innings, and we went to extras. In the 11th, the Giants had a man on first and nobody out, a perfect situation for a sacrifice bunt. Pitcher Ryota Igarashi picked up the bunt and threw wildly to first, allowing a runner to score. The following batter, Yoshiyuki Kamei, who has spent his entire 15-year career with the Giants, smoked a homer that made it 7-4 and pretty much ended my night. The game took 4:43, about an hour longer than a typical 11-inning game should take.



In Japan, they erase the scores from the first 10 innings once the 11th inning starts, so all you see above are those 3 horrible runs. I saw Yakult twice on this trip and they lost both times, not surprising as they are in last place in the Central League.

Notes

The teams split the two remaining games in the series back at Jingu. Turns out that they travel by Shinkansen as well, as the next morning when I went to the station to catch my train, there were dozens of photographers waiting to snap shots of the players.



The rail pass I was using was good for five days, so after the overnight trips to Niigata and Nagano, I had one day on which to use it. I chose to go to Takasaki, just 50 minutes from Tokyo, and watch a high school baseball game as the prefectural Koshien tournaments were underway. I ended up choosing a rainy day, and rather than waste the Shinkansen ride, I took the train to Takasaki, walked over to Takasaki Jonan Ballpark to snap a picture (above), and then headed back. The games were eventually played after a 4-hour delay and I actually watched a couple of innings online back in Tokyo.

Next Up

After a couple of nights in NYC, I'm taking a weekend trip to Detroit to see the Jays three-game series in Comerica Park.  The Tigers are one of two AL teams worse than Toronto, so I actually am hoping for a couple of wins. Check back next week to see what happened.

Best,

Sean

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Yokohama DeNA Baystars 9 at Yakult Swallows 4 - July 9, 2019


This trip to Japan was my first time back in the country in the summer since 2013 and so I had to attend a game at Jingu Stadium, my favourite venue ever since I saw the 1997 Japan Series clinched here. The Yakult Swallows were home against Yokohama for a three-game set from Monday through Wednesday, and I originally planned to attend the opener, until a friend mentioned that Tuesday's game would be half-price beer night. So Tuesday it was.



With such a good deal, I got to the stadium early to get started on the festivities. The crowd was surprisingly small, but then I remembered that most people work and half-priced beer night was not an excuse to leave early. I personally can't think of a better excuse, but that is probably why I don't run my own company.



Anyway, I grabbed some greasy food to coat the stomach, choosing some kettle corn and questionable chicken to do the job. Concessions are located on the first floor, so you will need to stop there first if you have a seat on the second level, as we did.



When you buy tickets in Japan, you generally choose an area and take what is given to you. In this case, I was happy with the location behind the plate, but not with my group being the middle 5 seats in a 9-seat row. These were 3,500 yen per seat, quite a bit given how little legroom there is, which makes getting out to get more beer somewhat difficult.



Fortunately, the beer girls come straight to your seat to deliver foamy suds for 350 yen, about $3.20. There seems to be no limit, and last call isn't until the 9th inning. Normally I hope for quick, well-played games, but on this night, a longer affair would not be criticized. And wouldn't you know it! The baseball gods smiled on me as the two teams played a terribly slow-paced game that lasted 4:14, with Yokohama winning 9-4. That allowed us to have several extra cheap beers, and by the end of it, I really didn't care who won. This was a very fun evening, and actually made me enjoy Japanese baseball again, until the next game I saw the following week. That will be the subject of the next post.

Notes

My friend Ted is the one who told me about the half-price night. A Baystars fan, he lamented that he had never seen a grand slam live after his team left the bases loaded in the early innings. In the 6th, with the Baystars having scored once to take a 5-4 lead, former MLBer Jose Lopez came to the plate with the bases loaded and sure enough, drove a no-doubter to left to clinch the game and give Ted his first live grand slam, by the team he supports no less. I saw it as a reward for passing on that bit of information to me.

Yakult won the other two games in the series.

Best,

Sean

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Omiya Ardija 1 at Albirex Niigata 2 (J League, Division 2) - July 6, 2019


I was back in Japan for a couple of weeks and for the first time, picked up a Japan Rail Pass. There are different varieties of the pass, which is only available to foreigners on a temporary visitor visa and Japanese nationals who have been out of the country for at least 10 years. The pass allows unlimited rail travel on a certain number of days to certain regions or the entire country. I picked up a Nagano/Niigata pass for 18,000 yen ($165) because we wanted a family trip to Niigata, and the Shinkansen alone was over 20,000 yen. This pass allowed for five days of travel, so I had three more days after this overnight trip, but more on that in a future post.



Niigata was the largest city in Japan that I had yet to visit, though I had been to nearby towns for skiing and hot springs many years back. For me, the attraction here was Denka Big Swan Stadium, home of Niigata Albirex of the J. League. The stadium was built for the 2001 World Cup and is clearly visible from the right side of the Shinkansen as you enter the city (above). Albirex enjoyed some of the highest attendances in the league while they were in the top division, including an astonishing 40,114 average in 2005. Attendance dropped continuously since then, with just over 22,000 making it out to a game in 2014. When the team was relegated for the 2018 campaign, it became that much easier of a ticket.



The stadium is located south of the city, and is about a 30-minute walk from the central station, but it is more advisable to take the shuttle bus for 500 yen round-trip. You are dropped off across the street, and can walk through an underpass (above) to get to the venue.



The ticket booth is located in the large plaza that is highlighted by the welcoming orange arch. I picked up a general admission seat in the second level for 2,600 yen, though I could have saved 500 yen if I had purchased in advance.



The stadium took the Big Swan nickname in 2007, so dubbed because its roof resembles the wings of a swan, and swans inhabit a nearby lake. Denka is a chemicals concern that purchased the naming rights in 2013.



To enter the stadium, go up a large staircase and past banners of current players.



As my seat was on the second level, I had to walk up another staircase to get to that concourse.



There I found an excellent concession stand with a good selection of food and drinks. Niigata is famous for Japanese sake, and this was available for a bargain price of 410 yen. Takoyaki (breaded octopus fried in a ball shape) are only 350 yen.



Niigata is also the birthplace of national snack Kaki no Tane (known as Kaki P when peanuts are included). At the stadium, you can pick up a large Albirex-branded pack of Kachi no Tane with peanuts for 100 yen. That's less than a dollar. Note that Kachi means Win and this is a pun on the original name of the snack.



Next door to the stadium (through the underpass) is Hard Off Eco Stadium Niigata, which is a large ballpark that is still waiting for an NPB team, though it has hosted an all-star game in the past. Hard Off is a second-hand store selling musical equipment and games, and once again proves that Japan needs a national advisor on avoiding funny English product names. This is one stadium that I want to get to, but there was no game here on the weekend. I don't know if I will ever be back.



Inside, I took a seat near facing the top of the box on the east side of the stadium. This is a huge venue and with attendance at about half of capacity, there is no problem finding a seat with space, as long as you are not with the supporters at either end. Like many facilities in Japan, this is multi-purpose with a track around the pitch, so there are no seats right next to the action.



Both teams wore orange, which led to a confusing situation at the far end, where the left section of home supporters wore orange and were separated by the visiting supporters wearing orange by an open block of orange seats.



The roof is the most interesting aspect of the stadium, and it allows for some cool shots of the sun poking through the hotels facing the west side.



Even with the sun out of view, the open roof allows for more colourful shots of the sky.



Overall, this was one of my favourite experiences in Japanese soccer. The wide-open spaces and excellent food items combined with fairly easy access and the scenic surroundings make this a stadium worth visiting for those in the country.

The Game

Omiya was near the top of the table, while Niigata were down in 12th, reasonably safe from relegation. The players appeared from the tunnel and lined up, with Niigata wearing orange, while Omiya Ardija were forced into their road whites. Before kickoff, there was a tribute to Thalles, who had played the 2018 season here and was killed in a motorcycle crash two weeks prior in Brazil. The moment of silence was actually respected, unlike in North America where it seems there is always at least one idiot who has to yell something.



The game itself was typical of soccer at this level: lots of possession given up cheaply, few sustained attacks, and sudden goals. Omiya's Robin Simovic opened the scoring with a sublime header in the 17th minute, but Niigata got that back with a less impressive header from Leonardo in the 32nd. Leonardo is one of six Brazilians on the squad.



As we approached the hour mark, Albirex's Francis, another Brazilian, was sprung with a perfectly timed pass that I thought was offside at first glance. But the flag stayed down and Francis broke in alone on the keeper, chipping the ball over him for the lead. I checked the highlights and the call was correct, and that goal turned out to be the winner as Niigata prevailed 2-1.

Notes

This was my 13th J. League venue. I'd love to get to more of them, but with games mostly once a week, extended road trips are difficult.

Best,

Sean