Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Yakult Swallows 0 at Yomiuri Giants 1 (11, Eastern League) - July 29, 2009

After watching some high school ball on the weekend, it was time to return to the minor leagues. There are 6 minor league parks in the Tokyo area, and today I visited my 3rd - Yomiuri Giants Stadium. The Yakult Swallows were visiting, finishing up a 3-game series, so I jumped on the Shinjuku line and headed to Keio Yomiuriland station to catch the game.

Yomiuri Giants Stadium

The stadium is located next to a large theme park called Yomiuri Land. Yomiuri is the conglomerate that runs the Yomiuri Shimbun, the newspaper with the largest circulation in the world, and also owner of Japan's version of the New York Yankees - the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants. So it's natural that they would place their minor league team next to an amusement park - Daddy can watch the baby Giants while Mom and the kids ride the roller coasters.

Built into the side of a hill, the stadium is reached via "The Road to the Giants" - a 283-step staircase that leads from the station. Alternatively you can pay 200 yen and take a gondola ride over all of Yomiuri Land, which gives a great bird's-eye view of the ballpark (shown above) as well as allowing you to see Tokyo in the distance. When you reach the other side of the gondola, you can walk back to the stadium in about 10 minutes. I highly recommend this option, it's pretty neat to see the ballpark from the air. But be warned - the gondola cars are not air conditioned and are sweltering in the summer heat - small hand fans are provided to keep yourself cool on the 5-minute ride.

As you enter the stadium ground, you will notice a ticket window. Games here are not free as they were in the other minor league parks I saw. All seats are 700 yen, and you can sit where you please. The seating bowl is about 12 feet above the field, which lets you look down on the players, even from the front row. Seats go from first base to third base, but the entire stand is behind netting to protect you. As you can see in the picture to the right, there are no backs to the seats, which can be slightly uncomfortable after a while. There are some benches well down the lines, but I suspect these are used for overflow crowds as they were mostly empty. There is a small food shack that sells curry among other local favourites, and a Giants souvenir stand, but that's about it. Still, it's a lot better than the fields that Lotte and Seibu are using.

The field is typical - all dirt infield and a grass outfield. The scoreboard is quite nice for the minor leagues and shows both lineups throughout the game. Dimensions are symmetrical at 322 feet down the lines and 400 feet to center. Beyond the fence you can see the roller coasters and hear people screaming as they zoom up and down.

All in all, this is the best minor league facility I've seen so far in Japan, which is not saying much.

The Game

Masafumi Togano started for the Giants and was excellent, giving up only 2 hits through 8 innings. He wasn't overpowering, but kept the Swallows off-balance with good command (only 1 walk) and a great sinker, getting 11 groundouts in that time. Unfortunately, his offense couldn't help him. Yakult starter Tatsuyoshi Masubuchi was not as dominant as Togano, but managed to hold the Giants scoreless through 6 frames. Two Yakult relievers had perfect innings, so we were still scoreless as the top of the 9th opened.

Speedy rookie Daisuke Fujimura is out at first

With one out, Usami Makitani singled off Togano and advanced on a ground out. Toshihiro Nakao then singled to right and Makitani stormed home. Right fielder Daijiro Tanaka picked up the ball and threw straight to home. Takanori Hoshi caught the ball just as Makitani slammed into him. When the dust settled, Hoshi held the ball in his barehand and the umpire made the out signal. A great game-saving play from the Giants defense!

Taishi Ota is hit by a pitch

In the bottom of the 9th, Yuya Kamada relieved for Yakult and promptly gave up 2 singles. But the Giants couldn't capitalize after a failed sacrifice and we were headed to extras, still tied at 0.

Togano was replaced by Soichi Fujita, who joined the Giants last season after 10 years with the Lotte Marines. Ex-Giant Takayuki Saitoh led off with a single and was running when Munehiro Shida lined a shot into right field. Saitoh rounded second and headed for third, but Tanaka threw another strike, the ball landing right in the third baseman's glove just as Saito slid in. OUT! Saitoh sat on the base, apparently stunned that he was out, but it was an incredible throw by Tanaka, who had saved the game twice now with arm. Yusuke Kajimoto doubled and the Swallows were threatening again, but Fujita escaped with a strikeout and a grounder.

The Giants did nothing in their half of the 10th, so we entered the 11th, still looking for the first run of the game. I should note that the game would end in a tie after 12 innings, so I was really hoping for at least one run. Yomiuri rookie Keisuke Saito got 1 out before giving up a single to Makitani and then a walk. Saito was relieved by Takefumi Miyamoto, another rookie, who promptly gave up a single to Nakao. Makitani was wisely stopped at third as rightfielder Tanaka came up throwing. So the bases were loaded with only 1 out - Yakult surely had to score!

The Giants brought in Levi Romero, a flame-thrower who has spent several years in the US minor leagues. He was to face Saitoh, who swung at the first pitch and grounded weakly to shortstop. Unbelievably, the Giants managed to turn the double play and Romero pointed skyward as he danced off the field.

Tsuyoshi Ueda grounds back to the pitcher

In the bottom of the 11th, the Giants made two quick outs off Kamada. Pinch-hitter Noriyoshi Ohmichi was announced and the crowd murmured. He's a veteran with over 20 years and 1300 games in the Japanese major leagues. Could he end things? He swung and belted the ball to left center. It looked like Nakao was tracking it as he went back, back, on the track, and jumped.....IT'S GONE! Nakao slumped to the ground, his glove empty, as Ohmichi circled the bases to cheers from the remaining fans. What a fantastic finish to an excellent ballgame. Even though Yakult lost, it was nice to see an oldtimer like Ohmichi still able to bring it at 39 years of age.

This was probably the best game I have seen in Japan - solid pitching, excellent defense, and a memorable finish. Along with the interesting ballpark and the gondola ride, a great experience to start the second half of the season.

Lucky Draw

One additional item is that each ticket has a lucky number printed on it. After the fifth inning, while the grounds crew fixes the field, they announce several prizes. I came close to winning some Giants tickets, but the last digit was different. Oh well. Still, it's a good idea, and I'm surprised other teams haven't started to improve their minor league facilities. There's so much opportunity here to generate revenue and create a community atmosphere in Tokyo's suburbs - I hope someone comes to their senses and makes Japanese minor league ball the attraction it deserves to be.

Next Game

Yakult hosts Yomiuri on Friday in Saitma, although rain is again forecast. With all the crappy weather here, I'm not going to bother planning which games to attend in advance - I'll decide that day. So stay tuned for updates at random intervals, at least until the rainy season is really over.



Japan Awarded the 2019 Rugby World Cup!

Big news for Japan - they will host the Rugby World Cup in 2019! Yeah, it's 10 years from now, but it's a start - hopefully by then rugby will be played competitively by more than 8 nations and we will see an interesting tournament.

Before then, England will host the 2015 tournament, as announced earlier today. Neither award is surprising as Rugby World Cup Ltd. - the IRB-controlled company that oversees each tournament - recently endorsed England and Japan as the strongest bidders. Still, after hosting the Junior World Championship earlier this year, Japan had high hopes and they were rewarded. But it's a long haul until then, so in the meantime I'll be following the sport to see if any new countries can challenge the status quo.

The next World Cup is in New Zealand in 2011 - still too early to plan a trip but with Canada making an appearance, I won't ignore the possibility. If you're not a rugby fan, now is the time to start following. It's a great sport that just needs a few more nations to become competitive to make the World Cup a truly international spectacle.

Update: It's 2019! I went to two games in England in 2015, but at this point, it does not look like I will go to any in Japan this year.



Monday, July 27, 2009

Japanese High School Baseball - 4 Games and Lots of Crying - July 26-27, 2009

As I mentioned yesterday, the Japanese High School Baseball tournament was conducting it's regional qualifiers in Tokyo over the past few days. With the majors and minors on their all-star breaks, I decided to check out some of the action - I've seen plenty of high-school games on TV but never gone to one live. So when Sunday dawned bright and clear, I grabbed a friend and we took the train over to Jingu Stadium to check out the Western Tokyo Quarterfinals. There were 119 teams at the beginning of this qualifier, so the quarterfinals should have been between some pretty good teams.

Scorching day

The temperature was somewhere around 35C (95F) and extremely humid, with not a cloud in the sky. As we arrived after the first game had completed (it started at 9:00 am, way too early on a Sunday), all the seats in the shaded section were taken, so we sat out in the open air. Despite copious amounts of sunscreen, a hat, a fan, and water, we were soon drenched in sweat. It was hot and uncomfortable, and became more so as the day progressed. The picture shows just how hot the fans are, except those lucky few in the shade. Ordering beer didn't help much, it was warm after just a few minutes. Suffice to say that Jingu Stadium on a hot day is not a nice place to be. But there was still some baseball to be played, so we tried our best to watch without passing out.

Game 1 - Nichidai2 7 - Hachioji 3

The first game featured Hachioji against Nichidai 2 (the second of 3 schools that are part of Japan University). Nichidai 2 has been to Koshien 4 times, while Hachioji has yet to make an appearance there, which would lead you to believe that Nichidai 2 was favoured.

I won't get into a play-by-play, but Hachioji had some early chances due to a lack of control from the Nichidai pitcher. But due to some mental errors and an over reliance on the sacrifice bunt, they came up empty handed after two innings, leaving 4 men on. Nichidai scored 1 in the second, added 4 in the 5th and 2 more in the 6th for a 7-0 lead. There is a mercy rule where if you are leading by 7 runs after 7 innings, the game is called. So Nichidai just needed to complete the shutout to finish things off, but naturally, Hachioji scored a run to prolong their misery.

They then added two more to make it reasonably close, but with the tying run in the on-deck circle, Nichidai's center fielder made a spectacular catch to end the game. The batter, who thought he had a 2-run double, collapsed on the basepaths like he had been shot, but in reality, he was just in tears. Making it to Koshien is a dream for all of these ballplayers, and they only get one or two chances, so to have it end on such a play was more than he could take. Nonetheless, he was consoled by his teammates and brought back to the closing ceremony, where both teams bow at each other and shake hands.

One interesting play in this game happened with Nichidai batting and the bases loaded and two outs. The batter struck out but the catcher dropped the ball. The baserunners ran while the catcher picked up the ball and stood there. The umpire made no out signal, as the catcher neglected to step on the plate for the final out. The defense was making it's way off the field, but the ruling was no out - the run scored and play continued with the next batter. One of the fun things about high school baseball is the mental errors players make - stuff you will rarely see in the majors. This one cost Hachioji two runs, and no doubt the catcher will spend a few sleepless nights thinking about that one.

A final note - Nichidai's pitching threw more balls than strikes but still won handily - a function of poor baserunning and overuse of the sacrifice by Hachioji - 3 times they sacrificed but gained no runs for their efforts.

Game 2 - Kodaira 9 - Kugayama 6

By the time the second game started, we were exhausted. We decided to stay as the first game was just over 2 hours long (high school games move quickly here) and this one should be as quick. Kugayama were known to be a strong team with 2 previous appearances at Koshien while Kodaira was still looking for its first. We found a shady spot and proceeded to watch a long, boring game that lasted over 3 hours. I didn't keep score, but Kugayama had the tying run at the plate with 1 out, only to see him line into an unassisted double play.

I think Kugayama's main mistake was starting their 2nd-string pitcher, who gave up 4 runs in his only inning. Perhaps they were taking Kodaira a bit lightly, but it seemed like they felt they could make it back, but they lost by 3. Of course, I'm not sure how tired their other pitchers were, but certainly their offense had trouble coming back.

These two teams play in the semi-finals tomorrow, I'll post an update later this week but expect Nichidai 2 to advance to the final.

Back for more

Monday was the semi-finals of the Eastern Tokyo regional. It started at 10 am, and by getting there early I was able to secure a front-row seat in the shaded second deck. The crowd was smaller than Sunday, but still a surprisingly good turnout for a weekday morning.

Game 3 - Teikyo 5 - Nishogakusha 0

Teikyo is one of Tokyo's best teams, having made 10 appearances in Koshien with 2 championships. Nishogakusha has yet to make it to the summer tournament, and they won't be going this year as Teikyo starter Hirahara pitched a great game, giving up 5 hits and no runs in 9 quick innings. Hirahara retired 14 in a row at one point, only allowed 1 runner to reach 3rd base, and contributed a double, an RBI single, and a run scored as Teikyo plated 5 to win easily. At one point late in the game, his pitches reached 147km/h, which is about 91mph, pretty good for a young kid. I'll have to find some info on him and see if he gets drafted, as he looks like he has some potential to make the pros in Japan. The picture above is actually M. Suzuki, the starter for Nishogakusha - he wasn't bad but his unorthodox windup was no match for Hirahara.

Game 4 - Yukigaya 7 - Seiritsu 1

Seiritsu batter fouls one off

I moved down to take some pictures of this game from the front row, so didn't really pay much attention. Yukigaya has 1 Koshien visit, while Seiritsu has 0. Yukigaya scored early to take a 5-0 lead and held on for a 7-1 win in a game that was not that exciting.

The Yukigaya cheering section in red watching their team bat

Cheering Sections
Each school has its own cheering section, composed of the brass band, cheerleaders, and players who aren't on the main team. When their team is batting, they are constantly singing, chanting, and making noise. I did sit near the cheering section for Seiritsu which was interesting - listening to a couple of the female students discussing which players were cute shows that baseball fans are the same the world over. Even as their team fell further behind, the cheers did not lose their enthusiasm.

I don't know why, but each section seemed to play the same two songs: We Will Rock You or Popeye the Sailor Man. I like these groups in general, as they show school spirit and make the game more interesting, but wish they could broaden their musical choice.

Teikyo's cheering section - not as big as expected

Final thoughts

It's much better watching these games on TV. The scorching heat and almost no place to sit with shade make things uncomfortable as the day goes on. On Monday, I did manage to get a seat underneath the roof, which improved things a bit, but the heat is still difficult to tolerate for several hours.

The baseball is entertaining as there are many things that you won't see in more advanced games. Mental errors abound naturally, as these are just kids playing in what might be the most important game of their lives. There were two catchers interference calls on the same guy, in another game an outfielder was slow on a single which allowed the batter to stretch it into a double. The outfielder was immediately pulled, despite it only being the 3rd inning.

Still, the lack of imagination from the managers is what really bugs me about these high school games. The first problem is the incredible overuse of the sacrifice bunt. If the first batter reaches, almost always the second batter would bunt. Why not force the pitcher to make an out - use the hit and run or something else. Even 3rd, 4th, 5th batters would be bunting rather than swinging away against a pitcher who was struggling. In almost all cases, the inning ended with no runs, or perhaps one. But as most games are not 1-run affairs, taking your team out of a potential rally just to follow some stupid baseball dogma is infuriating.

Other things that drove me nuts:

1) Fake pickoffs - where the pitcher would turn and pretend to throw to the base. No point to this. Please stop.

2) Sliding into first - you slow down when you slide and you are out anyway. Also if the throw is wild, you can't keep running. At least your uniform is dirty I guess.

3) The heat - did I mention that yet?

Anyway, that's it for Japanese high school baseball. It's fun and cheap entertainment, but not compelling. I'll follow the Tokyo teams in the tournament and let you know how they do, but won't be making the trip to Osaka myself.

Next game

It's raining so I skipped tonight's minor league game in Yokosuka, but hope to make it to 3 other minor league games this week and will let you know how they go.



Sunday, July 26, 2009

Big Week of Baseball Coming Up

I've been back in Tokyo for a week now and done very little, as it rained every day last week. It looks like the worst of that is over and it's time for the hot and humid weather to take charge for the next 6 weeks. That means it's time for the national high school baseball tournament, known as Koushien after the ballpark in which it takes place. Located in Nishinomiya, a town near Osaka and Kobe, Koushien is the most famous ballpark in the country, while the tournament is one of the most fascinating sports spectacles in Japan.

Starting on August 8th, it will runs for 15 consecutive days, culminating in a final that is more popular than the Japan Series. Every game is televised on NHK, the national broadcaster in Japan. Some high schools are nationally famous for their strength in baseball as they have made repeated trips to Koshien, and many pro players gained fame at the tournament. Daisuke Matsuzaka, now taking up DL space in Boston, pitched a no-hitter in the 1998 championship game. Of course, he also threw 250 pitches in a 17-inning game earlier in that tournament, which might explain his repeated visits to the doctor a decade later.

Each prefecture in Japan has its own tournament to decide its representative (some areas such as Tokyo are divided into East and West, since they have so many schools). The 49 regional winners then converge on Koshien in early August, playing a single knockout format until only 1 team is left standing.

Both the East and West Tokyo tournaments have their final games in Jingu Stadium, where the Yakult Swallows play. At 700 yen to enter, I figure this is something worth seeing, and if I enjoy it, I may head down to Osaka to catch some games in the actual tournament. Today is the West Tokyo quarter-finals, so I'll catch a couple of those, and then tomorrow sees the East Tokyo semi-finals, which I plan to watch as well. I'll have some detailed reports later this week.

There's also a lot of minor league action in the Tokyo area this week. Monday night, the Shonan Searex are at home at an all-you-can-drink-beer night, which I will check out. Then the Eastern League futures team visits the Fighters minor leaguers in Kamagaya on Tuesday. Wednesday sees the Giants minor leaguers hosting Yakult, with a return matchup in Toda on Friday. The weather looks promising, so I plan to head to all those games to get back into baseball. As usual, look for reports here.



Tuesday, July 21, 2009

NHL Road Trip

The NHL schedule was released last week, and I put it through my patented NHL Road Trip spreadsheet which creates a simple matrix with the teams schedules listed in geographical order, so one can easily plan a trip. I do this every year just to see what possible trips would look like. With the 2010 Olympics being held during the season, the 82-game schedule is a bit more compact, which makes it a bit easier to plan a trip as there are less extended road trips.

This is the first trip I came across, using Ottawa as the starting point. I won't be taking it (the NFL trip, which is unlikely at this point, takes priority), but just posting it here for your perusal. Ambitious roadtrippers can add AHL games as well as ECHL games, although I'll leave that for an actual trip plan.

Date Vis Home
10/12/2009 PIT OTT
10/15/2009 COL MON
10/21/2009 NAS BOS
10/24/2009 WAS NYI
10/26/2009 PHO NYR
10/28/2009 BUF NJ
10/31/2009 CAR PHI
11/01/2009 CMB WAS
11/06/2009 TOR CAR
11/08/2009 STL ATL
11/14/2009 NYI FLO
11/12/2009 MIN TB
11/19/2009 NJ NAS
11/23/2009 BOS STL
11/25/2009 STL DAL
11/27/2009 DAL PHO
12/03/2009 OTT LA
12/06/2009 OTT ANA
12/09/2009 LA SJ
12/18/2009 WAS VAN
12/27/2009 VAN CAL
12/30/2009 TOR EDM
01/06/2010 NYI COL
01/09/2010 CHI MIN
01/10/2010 ANA CHI
01/14/2010 CAR DET
01/18/2010 STL CMB
01/21/2010 WAS PIT
01/27/2010 NJ BUF
01/30/2010 VAN TOR

Some good games in there, a small break for Christmas, and finishing with Vancouver in Toronto - actually maybe I should do this trip after all. Anyone want to join?



Saturday, July 18, 2009

Canada Makes the Rugby World Cup and Other Updates

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago about some less popular sports - particularly rugby and minor league soccer, and thought I should update you on what transpired in the meantime.


First, Canada defeated the US in the home-and-home series. The first game was played on July 4th and shown on ESPN to start, but moved to ESPN2 after the unfortunate news concerning Steve McNair broke. The US won 12-6 in that affair, but were roundly defeated 41-18 in Edmonton a week later, giving Canada the Americas 1 berth for the 2011 tournament in New Zealand. Canada is the first country to qualify through competition (12 nations automatically qualify through their finish in the 2007 tournament). Canada will play in a group with New Zealand, France, and Tonga, as well as an Asian team yet to be determined. Suffice to say that finishing in the top 3 will be quite difficult for the Canucks but it'll be worth watching.

The US now takes on Uruguay for the final Americas berth, but even a loss there will not eliminate them as there is a final 4-team playoff with teams from other continents.


In the US Open Cup, only 1 of the 4 USL teams that had advanced to the quarterfinals won - the Rochester Rhinos knocked off USL2 side Wilmington Hammerheads 2-1 and will take on DC United next week. The other semi-final features Houston and Seattle in an all-MLS battle.

The Ottawa Fury, meanwhile, have clinched a spot in the PDL playoffs. They are currently 11-0-4 with one game left, and have given up only 8 goals all season, tied for best in the league. Their final game is this Sunday when they host Brooklyn. I can't go as I'm flying back to Japan that day, but would recommend any Ottawa residents to have a look, this team is interesting to watch and could go far in the playoffs.


In another sport that doesn't get the coverage it should here, England and Australia are doing battle in the Ashes. The first match was a draw, and the second match is going on right now, with 3 more to follow. It's fascinating stuff, and I urge those who don't understand the game or the history of this tournament to use their work hours to follow along on

I'm all done with sports on this rather eventful trip, but will be back in Japan early next week and looking to continue my minor-league baseball tour there. Until then, have a good sports-filled weekend!



Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Visiting New York City

I spent 10 days in NYC, and saw 5 ballgames, which means I had 5 other days to tour the city. The weather was perfect every day, and with a copy of Time Out New York and a subway pass, the city was ours for the taking.

I don't want to get into the details here, but we spent time touring art galleries in Chelsea (there's a reason some of these artists are struggling) , seeing James Gandolfini in "God of Carnage", watching Independence Day fireworks on the Hudson River, finding various eateries around Manhattan (including a great Vietnamese meal at Cong Ly), and enjoying plenty of beers in Dalton's Bar and Grill on 9th Avenue, which shows as many live baseball games as it can. It was a great trip, highlighted by seeing a Broadway musical from the front row!

I didn't know this, but for each performance of West Side Story, the front row seats are distributed via lottery. You simply show up 2.5 hours before showtime and fill out a card, then wait for 30 minutes for winners (drawn randomly) to be announced. Those selected can buy the front-row seats for $26.50 each, an incredible bargain given that row 2 seats are $120. With nothing to lose, I entered the lottery and waited around for the results. Only 18 tickets are available, which means 9 pairs. With about 200 people entering, chances were not good, but amazingly, my name was chosen as the last winner. It was a nice change of luck after last week's adventures, and I gladly bought the tickets.

The show was really sensory overload - singing, dancing, acting, colour - all just a few feet away. A truly unforgettable experience.

But the evening was not over yet. We already had tickets for the premiere of the movie Bruno, at 12:01 am in nearby Times Square. We entered the theater around 11:30 and were surprised to find a DJ playing loud music, people dancing, and lots of security. Hmmm, would Bruno be making an appearance? After a few minutes of waiting, the DJ asked the dancers to return to their seats as somebody special would be showing up. Sure enough, just after midnight, Bruno sashayed into the theater to screams from all around. He shook hands while running up and down the aisles before giving a little speech. He called us the sexiest audience he had ever seen, and that's about all I can print here. You can see a video of the event on YouTube if you wish.

Return to New York?

Anyway, enough entertainment news.New York is really the best city to visit - there is simply no shortage of things to do. So I'm sure I'll return here. But with the new stadiums being so expensive and so much else to do there, I think that it may no longer be a baseball-first destination. Sure there are two major league and two NYPL teams, but I'd rather go to a local pub or restaurant, tour a museum, or see a show. Believe it or not, there's more to life than sports, although often it takes a city like New York to make me remember that.



Bryant Park and the Public Library

Columbus Circle

Sunset along 42nd Street

Avenue Q performs in Broadway in Bryant Park

Monday, July 13, 2009

No Game in Scranton

I left New York early Sunday morning, driving to Buffalo with a planned stop in Scranton to catch a AAA game. It's only about 2.5 hours to get there, and the game was scheduled for 1:05, so I left around 9:30 and made my way across New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. As I neared the Scranton area, I scanned the radio and found the pre-game show - it was still only 11:40, so I was surprised that they would have a pre-game show so early. I was even more surprised when the announcer said "We'll be back to Alliance Bank Stadium in Syracuse in a minute." What?! Why would a Buffalo-Scranton game be played in Syracuse? I must have misheard, and being close to the stadium, decided to continue anyway.

Well, I hadn't misheard after all. Due to drainage issues with PNC field, the entire series had been moved - the first two games were played in Allentown, the next two in Syracuse. So there was no game for me to see after all. Interestingly, I had planned to see 4 minor league games on this trip, but only saw 4 innings of one game due to the car troubles, rain, and this relocation. Oh well.

If I had checked the internet before I left, perhaps I would have noticed this, but it wouldn't have mattered much, I doubt I could have made Syracuse for the 12:00 start. I just continued on my trip, arriving much earlier in Buffalo than anticipated and enjoying a quiet evening with ESPN while updating the blog.

Next game?

There's no more games on the schedule. I am visiting family for the next week, with no sports nearby. After I return to Japan, I'll try to find some ballgames to watch, but otherwise will be trying to get a short-term job to extend the work visa. Nonetheless, I'll be updating the blog regularly as I decide whether to do the NFL trip and other sports trips ideas.



Mets Making a Mess at Citi Field - July 7/11, 2009

After the weekend in the Bronx, it was time to head over to Queens to catch the Mets in their new stadium, known as Citi Field, after bailout recipient Citigroup - why not call it U.S. Taxpayer Gets Screwed Field until the bailout money is paid back? OK, enough political commentary. The stadium is located in Queens, and you can reach it via the 7 train from Manhattan, made famous by John Rocker so many years ago. Try to get the Express train (the one with the diamond), it's a bit faster. The stop is Mets - Willets Point; no longer is Shea Stadium included in the stop name, although it is still on the MTA subway maps for souvenir hunters.

Citi Field

As you emerge from the newly constructed exit from the 7 train, you are presented with a good view of the stadium, its brown brick contrasting nicely with the bright blue sky (if you are lucky enough to go on a clear day). You can see in the picture above, with a plane taking off from nearby LaGuardia. At this point, you are right in front of the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, the main entry point which contains a large area dedicated to the memory of the man who broke the colour barrier in baseball. A large blue 42 is prominent beneath the escalators and offers a good photo op, while his values are etched in the wall around the rotunda. This gate opens 2.5 hours before game time, so most fans enter here - it's a good idea as it is the highlight of the park.

I say that because the rest of the stadium is rather average. Gone are the colourful seats that made Shea Stadium unique, replaced by the typical green seats that almost every new stadium uses. I found few good viewpoints here: there are many overhangs that reduce the open air aspect from many seats and also give the stadium a dark undertone, as shown in the picture above. I had a first row seat in the upper level for one game and was forced to look through a small railing to see the pitcher and batter - rather annoying. There are standing areas which have cup holders, a good idea.

There are two electronic scoreboards in center-field, one that shows the lineups and video, the other that shows player stats. There is also a large ribbon board that encircles the stadium. The out-of-town scoreboard (shown below) hangs from the roof above the left field seats. It seems like a last minute addition, but it does show the number of outs and base runners, which does allow you to follow other games closely.

Behind the scoreboard on the field level concourse lies the 2K Fanfest area, a small section with games for children, such as a mini-field where kids can try to hit a homer (the Mets will sign any kid who knocks out three in a row), pitching cages, and a dunk tank. Just in front of the scoreboard lies the Big Apple, which pops out after every Met homer. Sadly it did not make an appearance in the two games I saw, the picture below is from batting practice. Otherwise there is little to distinguish this park from any other.

Food options are decent and relatively inexpensive, at least compared to what you would see at Yankee Stadium. There is the World's Fare Market, which offers sushi and other international "cuisine". I was impressed with the hot dog topping options here, much better than other ballparks, with hot peppers and jalapenos even covered by a silver lid. Fancy! But at $4.75 for a dog, you wouldn't expect much less.

Seats are not as expensive as those at Yankee Stadium, but they are still overpriced, especially given the product the Mets are trying to sell. There are five different price structures depending on the opponents, and 38 different seating options, which makes things ridiculously confusing. I'd try Craigslist before going to the ticket office if you have time, or just get the cheapest seats and stand on the field level.

Finally, a word about the customer service people - in Shea they were the rudest old geezers you could find. At Citi Field, I found them generally pleasant and helpful. One guy asked me if the new guy (Jeff Francouer) was starting when I was filling out my scorecard. So at least that's improved.

Overall, I really didn't like this stadium that much - just too pedestrian. But I did appreciate it's simplicity when compared to Yankee Stadium. I think the best way to put it is that Yankee Stadium is the better of the two, but I'd rather watch games at Citi Field - it seems like baseball is still the main attraction there. 

Update 13 years later: Now that I have lived in Queens for eight years, I have to say that this my opinion has reversed. Citi Field has become the far better place to go, with Ebbs Brewery a key attraction. Having attended about 100 games here now, I know all the ins and outs and find it much easier and more relaxing to see a game here.

The Mets are garbage - sadly all too true this season

The Games

The Dodgers were in town for a 3-game set with Manny Ramirez (below) back from suspension. Mike Pelfrey started for the Mets and was awful. Meanwhile the Mets anemic offense made Clayton Kershaw look like the second coming of Cy Young. Manny Ramirez was ejected after throwing his elbow pad, but it didn't matter. This game was terrible - the Dodgers won 8-0 and took 3:13 to rub it in. Perhaps the least pleasant game I have ever seen.

I had planned to see the next game on Wednesday, but was so put off by the display I witnessed that I needed a few days away from baseball. So I decided to wait until Johan Santana (shown below) started against the Reds on Saturday, which was also lunch box day. Definitely the baseball highlight of the trip - a great giveaway and almost enough to make me return to work, just so I can carry this thing on a train in Japan.

The game itself was not that exciting as Johnny Cueto had a rough first inning, giving up a 2-run bloop single to Francouer, and a 2nd-inning triple to Angel Pagan as the Mets took a 4-0 lead. Santana was good, shutting out the Reds through 7, although it took him 114 pitches to do it. Pedro Feliciano and K-Rod pitched an inning each to complete the shutout as the Mets won 4-0. Unfortunately for the Reds, right fielder Jay Bruce fractured his wrist in the first inning, and looks to be out for some time.

After that I returned to Manhattan to celebrate my last night in New York. The baseball part of this trip wasn't that good, but the rest of the trip was incredible, and I'll update you on that next.



Weekend at Yankee Stadium - July 3,4 & 6, 2009

After a hellish week in which the car broke down and two minor-league games were rained out, I arrived in New York City for a 10-day vacation. I parked the car at my Manhattan hotel and prayed that it would be operational when I checked out (it was). I met Sharpy who had flown down from Ottawa and it was time to see the city and the new stadiums. The Jays were in town for the Independence Day weekend, so the first stop was the new Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.

Yankee Stadium

Located next door to the House That Ruth Built (now known as Heritage Field to prevent confusion with the new ballpark), Yankee Stadium cost $1.5 billion to build and it shows. This stadium is huge and no expense has been spared. But unfortunately, much of it is not accessible to the average fan. From the ridiculous ticket prices to several exclusive club sections, the Yankees have really made it a monument to class distinction. It's not all bad, but after 3 games there, I really didn't feel like I wanted to return. Update: I moved to NYC four years after this post.

History Everywhere

The Yankees organization is known for two things: history and money. Both of these are highly visible in the stadium. First, the history aspect. Monument Park is now located in center field, and you have to walk down a small hallway to access it. Get there early, it does get crowded and is a fairly small area. All the plaques and retired numbers that were in old Monument Park are here, and there's a small path that leads you around the area. It takes time to read the details on each player - interesting that they thought that Lou Gehrig's consecutive games record would "stand for all time". It's all very nice and a visit there makes you realize just how many legends the Yankees have had play for them.

Next up is the Yankees Museum, located on the Main Level, at the top of a ramp near Gate 6. Follow the signs, and you will likely notice a long line snaking down the ramp, these are people waiting to get in the museum. It's free, and worth a look as it contains memorabilia from all 26 championship teams, Thurmon Munson's actual locker, a model of the new ballpark and several hundred autographed baseballs that join statues of a pitcher (shown below) and catcher. The top of the baseball display case tracks the pitch, which is rather cool. (Ed: Turns out the pitch is the last pitch thrown in Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series; Yogi Berra is the catcher - thanks to John in Houston for the note.) Try to get there early too - obviously both can't be done at the same time, but with gates opening 3 hours before game time, you should be able to get both done with a minimum of waiting.

You might think that that would be enough history, but you would be wrong. There is also the Babe Ruth Plaza outside the stadium, which contains the Babe's life story on light posts around the plaza and is worth a quick look before or after the game. There's also lots of historic photos around the stadium (humbly known as the Glory of the Yankees Photo Collection). And before the game, there's a nice little documentary played on the big screen detailing the exploits of a historic Yankee, such as Lou Gehrig or Yogi Berra. The Yankees have a storied history, and they don't let you forget it in this new ballpark.

The Great Hall, just inside Gate 6, a nice open air addition to the stadium.


The next thing you notice is how much Yankee Stadium costs. Game day price for field level seats between the bases is $400. That's Four Hundred Dollars! Insane! Are people walking up to the ticket windows with the intention of spending $400 on a 9-inning game with Andy Pettitte starting? As you move around the stadium, prices decrease, to $95 for field level seats in the outfield. Given that the Bleacher seats are only $14 and just behind, these $95 seats are the worst value in all of sports. I don't want to run down the entire price structure, but you can get decent upper deck seats for $30 (the view from there is shown), but otherwise there aren't any other seats I would choose. I did stand for one game, and that might be the best option - close to the action and the people in front of you paid $400. Unfortunately, Yankee games often run over 3 hours, so you will need to be strong to stand for that length of time, but then again you can always return to your seat.

Food prices are stupid as well. Beers were $9, and I don't recall the prices of much else, as I was in a state of disbelief. The only thing I ate there was a box of noodles, which were OK, but overpriced at $8.50. You can try the Hard Rock Cafe or NYY Steak restaurants if you wish to have a sit down meal, but as usual, it's crowded, so get there early. One interesting note is that New York requires all food items to have their calories listed - let me tell you when you see how many calories one hot dog has, it's not a problem to avoid it, or the other stuff they serve. Still there is good variety, so if you can stomach the prices, try something different.

Finally, there are clubs and suites on all levels. Prices are not disclosed, but it doesn't matter much - I'll never be sitting there. There is the Mohegan Sun Sports Bar out in centerfield where you can get a game ticket at a discount for some games, and it also offers membership options.

Overall Thoughts

The stadium is beautiful and spacious, and easy to get around. It's nice that they used the same layout as in the old stadium, and the seats are Yankee Blue. Game staff are far too friendly though - I'm used to ushers snarling, not smiling and holding "How May I Help You" signs. There are far too many homers to right field, which needs to be fixed somehow.

The scoreboard is the most impressive I have seen so far. It was HD quality, I only wish they could show highlights for both teams. The out-of-town scoreboard rotates on part of the scoreboard, so you have to pay attention if you are following other games.

Despite all the positives, the overwhelming impression I left with is that I am too poor to really enjoy this place. There's a new class of fan and it ain't me. I don't think the Yankees missed any revenue streams in this new stadium, but I wonder how long they can bleed New Yorkers with the team they are sending out there.

Three games here was enough, I doubt I'll be back in the near future, unless I win the lottery.

The Games

Adam Lind swings

It was a long weekend and the Jays had a 4-game set against the Yankees, all of them 1:05 starts. I decided to skip one game as there are other things to do in New York, and looking at the pitching matchups, thought the Sunday game would be the one to miss, with Scott Richmond taking on Joba Chamberlain.

Friday saw ex-Jay A.J. Burnett facing Brian Tallett. Both starters pitched well, but Burnett was slightly better, and the Yankees won 4-2 behind homers from Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez. Our seats were in the wheelchair section in left field(they sell unsold companion seats on the day of the game) which were too far away to really feel part of the game. But it was great that people standing up to get food didn't really bother us that much as we were on a raised platform above the seats. Below is a picture of Johnny Damon with the red cap used for the Independence Day weekend series.

Saturday's game was a marquee matchup with Roy Halladay facing Chien-Ming Wang. Unfortunately Halladay was not on form, giving up solo homers to Hideki Matsui and Jorge Posada to fall behind 3-2 after 4 innings. But Wang hurt himself and was removed (and placed on the DL) after a homer by Adam Lind. David Robertson gave up another run and the Jays had a 5-3 lead, but Johnny Damon hit a 2-run shot to right (easy fly ball elsewhere) off Halladay to tie the game. The Yankees bullpen then shut down the Jays until Posada hit a game-winning single in the 12th inning off Shawn Camp. The game was 4:04 and naturally, this was the game I decided to stand. Needless to say, my knees didn't enjoy this experience much.

Doc Halladay throws

After the Jays lost on Sunday while I enjoyed a day in the city, Monday's game featured rookie sensation Ricky Romero against veteran Andy Pettitte as the Jays tried to avoid the sweep. Joe Girardi was ejected in the first inning arguing a call (Jeter was called out stealing third), and the Yankees seemed a bit out of sorts after that. Romero was good as well, and Pettitte was not as the Jays built a 7-1 lead after 6 innings. Naturally the Jays bullpen couldn't make things easy, and the Yanks crawled within a run. Eric Hinske, making his Yankee debut, was up with 2 outs in the 9th and the tying run on first, but struck out against Jason Frasor to end the game. I breathed a sigh of relief as the Jays had salvaged a game and my trip.

Vernon Wells fouls one off

Next up was a trip to Citi Field to see the Mets in their new digs. I'll update you on that shortly.



Thursday, July 2, 2009

No Game in Norwich

Happy Canada Day!

The good news: the car is fixed and I am in Norwich as scheduled.

The bad news: it rained heavily this afternoon, and although the skies are now clear, the game tonight has already been postponed. It's quite disappointing as top prospect Madison Bumgarner was scheduled to start for Connecticut. There's a doubleheader tomorrow evening, but I have to be in New York, so I'm not able to hang around to see it. Nearby New Britain is on the road tonight, while Pawtucket has an off day. So it'll be Wednesday Night Baseball on ESPN tonight.

I figure things can't get much worse than the first days of this trip, but I'm watching the Blue Jays this weekend, so it wouldn't surprise me to see them swept. Whatever the outcome, I'll post updates here as usual.



Wednesday, July 1, 2009

More about Soccer and Rugby

The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup

Most soccer federations have a cup competition in which any registered team can compete. The FA Cup in England is doubtless the most famous of these tourneys, but there is a similar competition in the US that gets much less publicity. Known as the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, it features teams from the top 5 levels of American soccer, which includes the PDL. Although the MLS teams don't enter the competition until the 3rd round, they are not drawn against each other, which means each MLS team plays a lower-division side, usually from the USL. But last night, the Ocean City Barons, a PDL team that plays Ottawa on occasion, took on DC United, one of the top teams in MLS. Ocean City lost 2-0, which is still a good showing for an amateur team.

On a frustrating note, there was a game between USL2 side Harrisburg City and the New England Revolution taking place in New Britain, CT. I was planning to be in nearby Pawtucket, and would have travelled to see this game instead had my car not broken down yesterday. Harrisburg took the game to extra time and scored the winner in the 104th minute to upset the Revolution.

In fact, out of the 5 games last night featuring a side from the USL against one from MLS, 4 USL teams won - only Minnesota lost to Kansas City on penalties after a 3-3 tie. I'm not sure if the MLS teams were using their second-stringers, but still it's speaks well of the USL that their teams can compete with those in the MLS, and their progress should generate interest in those markets. But I wonder how much coverage this series of upsets will get in the mainstream sports media.

I really like that teams from different leagues can play each other - I'd love to see AHL and ECHL teams take on NHL teams in some sort of cup competition, but of course this would never happen - the additional travel, difficult of getting arena space on short notice, and potential injury to players stops this idea from going anywhere.

US vs Canada in Rugby

Another great sport that is hardly covered in North America is rugby. This will change this weekend, when the US takes on Canada in a World Cup Qualifying match that will be telecast on ESPN. It's July 4th, so most people will be out enjoying their BBQ, but it's a start. USA Today had a front page story in their sports section, so let's see what happens with ratings. And let's hope the World Cup gets some coverage in 2011.

A Great Site for Live Scores

I've been looking for a site that shows world wide scores for the most popular sports at a glance. I think that I may have found one at Flash Score, which includes smaller leagues such as the Canadian Soccer League, and also lists both Japanese and MLB scores on the same page. As a European-based service, Flash Score defaults to Central European Time, but you can change to your own time zone. The soccer scores have sounds when goals are scored or the game ends, which lets you know when something happens. With hockey, basketball, rugby, and tennis also available, you can get nearly all your worldwide scores with a click from one site. Once football and cricket are added, this site will allow you to keep up-to-date all the time, so add it to your bookmarks now.

What'd I Miss?

I also thought I'd follow online the Syracuse-Pawtucket game that I was planning to attend. It looked like a dull game with Syracuse leading 8-0, but then I realized that Chiefs' starter Marco Estrada had a perfect game through 5! Oh no, would I miss a rare minor league no-hitter?! Nope, in the bottom of the 6th, Gil Velazquez hit an infield single for the PawSox to break up the no-no, and Syracuse went on to win 12-0, with that single being the only hit for Pawtucket (although Estrada was replaced after 7 innings). So I didn't miss much after all.

Tonight I hope to catch the game in Norwich but it all depends on the car - I'll let you know later.