Tuesday, June 29, 2010

FIFA=Frustratingly Incompetent Football Arbiters

Just a bit more on the ridiculously stubborn attitude of FIFA regarding video replay. There's been no comment on either of the poor decisions that marred Sunday's games. But there has been an immediate decision related to in-stadium video replay. In each venue, there is a video screen that shows the television feed. If you are watching the games, you will have noticed that fans that themselves on the screen and act accordingly. FIFA has a policy, however, of cutting away when a controversial call is replayed.

Well, during the Argentina-Mexico game, the first Argentine goal was offside but allowed. But the video screen didn't cut away, so the fans and players saw the replay which clearly indicated the goal should not have counted. The Mexicans went ballistic and there were problems at halftime as they accosted the officials on their way to the tunnel.

So FIFA's brilliant solution? Censor replays. The most surprising sentence from the article:
FIFA spokesman Nicolas Maingot said Monday that replaying the incident was
"a clear mistake."
What!? The clear mistake was the non-call. How can you be so arrogant to ignore that? Instead, FIFA blames the stadium replay guys (who are not FIFA employees). But wait! Aren't errors supposed to be a "part of football"? That's been Sepp Blatter's take for years. I guess what he means is that errors that affect the outcome of the game are a part of football, but errors that allow fans to realize how poor the officiating is are not. Bah. The continued hypocrisy here amazes me. The rest of the world is far more tolerant than I am towards such fan-unfriendly behavior.

Yellow Card Carryover

One thing that I haven't mentioned is the change to the yellow card carryover rules. In previous World Cups, if a player received two yellow cards in his first three games, he would miss the next game due to suspension. But when the knockout tournament began, single yellow cards would be nullified; i.e. the player would start with a blank slate. But during the knockout phase, two yellows in any two games would mean the player would miss the next game. So getting cautioned in the round of 16 and then again in the semi-final would render the player unusable for the final. This happened to Germany's Michael Ballack in 2002.

So FIFA's brilliant decision to avoid this situation? Yellow cards from the first round now carry over until the quarter finals are complete! Yes, if a player gets two yellow cards in five games, he will miss the semi-final! That's 450 minutes of soccer in which you are allowed but one caution. But if you get a yellow in the quarter-finals, then one in the semis, no problem. Given how card-happy some of these referees have been, it's simply not right.

The cancellation of yellows after the quarterfinals will only affect the 4 teams that advance, but already the quarterfinals will have players missing a game because they picked up two bookings in 4 games. I don't believe any league has such a rule (the Premier League rule is 5 yellows leads to a suspension) and it shouldn't be so strict for the most important tournament.

The right solution is to maintain the rule for stage 1. Then in the knockout tournament, cautions in consecutive games lead to a suspension. But a single yellow would be deleted if the player completes another game without going in the book. Seems simple to me.

OK, that's enough complaining about this. I've decided to accept the World Cup for what it is: a great tournament that is run by an old-boy network of stubborn incompetents. I'm not even going to blame the referees any more. The FIFA selection process chooses officials who should not be on the world stage. When they get there, we should not be surprised they fail miserably. Until FIFA changes its attitudes towards the selection process, these stories will continue.

Japan plays tonight, here's hoping for a game free of controversy.



Monday, June 28, 2010

Tainted Tournament?

Just two days ago I posted that the officiating in the World Cup wasn't that bad. I take it back now. For the Uruguayan referees to miss such an obvious goal is inexplicable (I am talking about England's disallowed goal when the ball clearly bounced over the line and back out). I am not saying that England would have won if the goal had counted; they were clearly outplayed by Germany. Nonetheless coming back from 2-0 down with 2 quick markers may have changed their strategy or given them some life.

At this level to have such a mistake that cannot be corrected is no longer acceptable. Sadly, Sepp Blatter will continue to run FIFA like it is 1966, contending that errors are part of the game. That's true. In fact, it seems like errors are the lead story of nearly every game now. But when we have technology to reduce the number of errors, it should be adopted. In the case last night, the fourth official should have immediately stopped the game and awarded the goal. Let's have the players deciding the outcome, not 3 stooges from Uruguay.

For fans, what is the point of watching anymore? Why waste our time when the result can be so easily dictated by bad decisions? I'm really not sure. I skipped the Argentina-Mexico game and understand now that there was another grievous error that allowed Argentina to open the scoring. It's disappointing that soccer should demonstrate such staggering incompetence on the world stage, but it's nothing new. What is more disappointing is that FIFA refuses to change its misguided policies on referee selection and the use of instant replay.

So is the tournament tainted? Despite my points above, I don't think so. We just have to accept that international soccer is a sport with horrible officiating run by a small group of dinosaurs. For us raised on North American sports where refs are generally competent (I'll ignore the NBA here) and the administration receptive to change, it's tough to understand. But that's the way it is and if you want to enjoy the World Cup, you'll just have to accept it.



Saturday, June 26, 2010

World Cup Thoughts

South America Shows Off

Well, the first round is over after 48 games in 15 days. It was a fascinating ride with the world watching. Both Korea and Japan advanced which puts Asian soccer firmly above that in Africa for the time being, especially given the tournament's location. But the big winners are the South American squads, who went a combined 10-1-4 and had all 5 participants advance to the knockout stage.

Europe saw only 6 of their 13 nations go through with a combined record of 10-9-10 against other confederations. I wonder if the higher altitudes had anything to do with that. South American teams have the natural advantage of playing at higher altitudes, so their bodies are used to the reduced oxygen levels. Other teams spent their training periods in higher altitude locations (Japan used an alpine training camp in Switzerland for example) but it still takes time to become fully acclimated. As time passes, the other teams should get used to the conditions, but the advantage is still there.

Both Asian teams play South American sides in the round of 16. Paraguay and Japan will play in Pretoria which is 1200 metres above sea level so there may be some advantage for Paraguay there. In the case of Korea vs Uruguay, the game is at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium which is near sea level, so the potential Uruguayan advantage is negated.

Goal Scoring

The first 16 games saw only 25 goals scored and pundits decried the defensive game. But the World Cup usually starts slowly as teams need time to get a feeling for themselves. The second and third rounds were superb with 76 goals in the 32 games. Slovakia's seeing off of Italy in a 3-2 thriller and Japan using two phenomenal free kicks to advance past Denmark were the highlights for me. The biggest disappointment was Brazil and Portugal playing to a stale 0-0 draw that sees both through.

Overall, there were 6 scoreless draws in the first round and another 13 1-0 games. But out of the 96 teams that were fielded (2 per game), 61 scored at least a goal, which is not a bad showing.


Some say the biggest problem with the games so far has been the officiating. It's true that yellow cards were handed out with abandon and there were several controversial calls that led to widespread complaints. This is nothing new; FIFA has a policy to use referees from each confederation and the standards are obviously inconsistent. I think the main reason that the refs have seen such bad press is that the US were victims of a phantom foul call that cost them a goal and a win against Slovenia (in reality, giving up 2 first-half markers denied the Yanks the win). But the American sportswriters vented against the easy target of the ref and poor decisions became the storyline. But after 48 games, I think the number of horrible calls wasn't that large and overall the refereeing wasn't that bad (think back to the Italy Korea game in 2002).

Rather, I think the largest concern here is the playacting by the athletes, who when touched lightly by an opponent, fall dramatically to the ground and writhe as if they have been shot. The ref is often guilted into giving a card despite having not seen the infraction (how could he when there wasn't one?!). The shamelessness of such behaviour should be challenged by FIFA and players who are found to be guilty after the fact should be punished. It really brings soccer down a few notches when players behave like little children.

The vuvuzelas also have received some bad reviews. Yeah, they are annoying, but banning them is not an option. It's part of the game there and it would smack of colonial attitudes to hold the tournament there and then tell the fans to keep their horns at home.

The Knockout Stage

Now we have 8 games in 4 days before a breather. According to the FIFA Rankings we can expect the US and Brazil in one semi-final and Germany against Spain in the other. But these rankings are pretty useless, as 45th-ranked Japan beat #19 Cameroon and #36 Denmark among other "upsets".

Looking at the draw and sticking with the South American superiority theme, Argentina and Brazil look good as the finalists. But if defense wins championships, look for Uruguay and Portugal, neither of whom conceded a goal in the first round.

But a more detailed analysis that includes the altitude of the stadiums shows that the Netherlands has a good chance as their first 3 matches (should they continue to win) would be at sea level. In fact, out of the 16 matches, 7 will take place at these low-altitude venues, so much of the advantage will be lost.

What do I think? I like Argentina's enthusiasm and their crazy coach Maradona in one half. In the other I'll pick against Brazil after their poor showing last night and say the Netherlands will take it given the above. I am usually quite wrong on these, but it's fun to guess.

I won't be making any updates in the next four days as I'll be watching soccer or sleeping, but check back on Wednesday for thoughts on the round of 16.

Hope you all are enjoying the tournament!



Friday, June 25, 2010

Tokyo Crosstown Doubleheader - June 24, 2010

Yesterday was a perfect day for baseball. I had already arranged to meet a friend for the evenings Giants-Swallows game at Jingu so I decided to make it a doubleheader by biking down to Ota Stadium to watch a Tokyo Industrial League tournament game in the afternoon.

There were two games scheduled, but with the World Cup games going on overnight here (yay Japan!), mornings are not an option, so I only made it for the afternoon game featuring JR East and Sega Sammy.

Ota Stadium

Ota Stadium is located in the southern part of Tokyo, close to Haneda airport. The closest train station is Ryutsu Center on the monorail, just two stops from the airport, but the stadium is located next to a long bike trail that takes you from Tennozu Isle all the way to Jonanjima. I used to use the trail here regularly and had passed this stadium hundreds of times but had yet to venture inside.

It is used for a variety of baseball games, and like most of these smaller stadiums, has no outfield seats. The seats extend down the lines a fair bit, and there is a small canopy shading the seats directly behind the plate. The field is a bright green that is almost blinding when you first get in. The dimensions are similar to other stadiums at 325 feet down the lines and 400 to center. You can walk around the top of the seating deck which provides nice views of the surrounding area, including Oi Racecourse, a nearby horse racing track.

Next door is a smaller stadium that looks to be a soccer field and had players practicing lacrosse, which I found interesting. There's not much more than that. It's not a place that is easy to get to or that has regularly scheduled games, so I'm glad I got to finally catch a game here (and up the stadium total to 304).

You can see a plane on approach just to the top left of the scoreboard

The Game

The game featured two teams who had won their first round matches. I missed the first out so decided not to keep score (which turned out to be a fortuitous choice as I had to leave early to make it to the nightcap). JR East broke open the scoring in the 3rd when Akira Matsumoto (shown above) cranked a 3-run shot to left. Sega Sammy got one back in the bottom half on a Takuya Jukuura RBI single (shown below).

The game progressed rather slowly for a few innings until JR East added a run on a great hustle play in the 7th. With a man on first, the batter attempted a sacrifice. The pitcher fielded it and threw wildly to first. The ball bounced into shallow right and the runner rounded third, heading for home. He just beat the throw and that made it 5-1. The bunter also scored on a single later in the frame and that was the final, 6-1.

Not a very exciting game, lots of pitching changes and Sega Sammy must have left 10 men on base. With the win, JR East faces Tokyo Gas next Monday at Jingu with the winner going on to the top tournament. Sega Sammy played a loser's bracket game today and were eliminated.

Tolerant Umpires

The most interesting incident in today's game involved the Sega Sammy manager arguing a call. He felt like his fielder had been interfered with and came out to physically show the umpire. He bumped the ump not once but twice to demonstrate what he felt had transpired on the field. Yet he wasn't tossed, the umpire just explained how he saw it while the manager steamed. Generally in Japan, umpires are much more tolerant and managers or players rarely get ejected.

There's a famous incident where American umpire Mike DiMuro, who was here as part of an experiment to improve umpiring standards in the NPB in 1997, ejected a player for arguing balls and strikes. He was surrounded by the players and pushed, no doubt causing him great consternation. That just doesn't happen in the States, where umpires are respected to some extent and have much more power. No punishment was given to any of the players and DiMuro subsequently resigned, ending the experiment.

Giants beat the Swallows

After biking back home and cleaning up, I headed over to Jingu to meet my friend Greg. He had never been to the stadium before despite living here for over 10 years. I told him I would bring him to a game, and we decided to check out the Yomiuri Giants. Weather was perfect and plenty of tickets were available at the box office. Given that the Swallows are in last, a full 14 games behind the league-leading Giants, this might not be surprising.

We ended up sitting in the second row just beyond first base. I didn't take many pictures as the screen was bothersome and the angle wasn't that good as you can see above. As for the game, the Giants won 4-2 behind two homers from reigning MVP and one-time Swallow Alex Ramirez and a two-run shot from Hisayoshi Chono. Chono is an interesting case - he was drafted twice previously but only wanted to play for the Giants. So he opted to play industrial ball for two years, leading Honda to the title last season. Finally, Yomiuri drafted him and he's been playing all year, although hitting only .245 with 9 homers. Of course, homer number 9 gave the Giants the winning runs yesterday. Ugh. Still, it takes guts to stick with your favourite team, even if it makes you a frontrunner.

It was nice to be back in Jingu to watch the Swallows but the game itself was thoroughly unenjoyable, taking 3:07 to reach its inevitable conclusion.

Next Up

That's pretty much it for Japanese baseball this year, at least in Tokyo. There's no stadium here that I still need to see and the teams I cheer for are horrible (as seems to be the case in every sport).

I'm off to Minneapolis and Iowa in two weeks and will be enjoying the World Cup in the meantime. Look for a post on that in the next couple of days and everyone please cheer on Japan!



Thursday, June 24, 2010

Following Drafted (and Undrafted) Players

It's been a couple of weeks since the MLB Draft and several players have come to terms and are already assigned to short-season teams. I mentioned that I would follow a few players, and was checking out Toronto's top picks to see if any had played. Turns out that their 4th pick (41st overall) Randall Wojciechowski signed and is already playing for the Auburn Doubledays of the NY Penn League. He made his first start yesterday and threw 4 scoreless innings against Mahoning Valley. Interestingly, he went by his middle name Asher while at school but is now referred to as Randall.

While I was perusing the boxscore, I noticed that Mahoning Valley used a pitcher named Nakamura. This is Takafumi Nakamura, a 22-year-old who played college ball here but wasn't drafted by any of the NPB teams. Cleveland signed him as a free agent late last year and this is his first pro experience. He's a big kid at 6'5 and apparently has a good fastball but is a bit wild. He pitched well against the Doubledays, striking out 5 in over 3.2 innings. It will be interesting to see how he progresses over the next few seasons. Update: Nakamura was cut in spring training after a decent season in 2010, and ended up in Japanese independent baseball.

As far as I know, no Japanese player has made his way through a major league organization to the big leagues. Right now there are a few Japanese players trying to be the first; some like Ryohei Tanaka pitching for AA Bowie (Baltimore) have played minor league ball in Japan while others such as Nakamura were never drafted.

I wonder if this might be the start of a trend. With only 12 teams in Japan and no true minor league system, a lot of young talent goes undrafted or underused in the minors. I'm sure there are some guys with the potential to work their way up the ladder of an MLB team. Size is an issue (MLB teams prefer bigger players) and the language barrier could be tough as I doubt that the teams want to employ roving minor league translators, but it is still something worth pursuing on both sides. The players would likely get more game action and a chance at history while the clubs can gain more exposure here and perhaps find a hidden gem. This is something that would progress over several years, so we'll see how things look in 2015. Update: This was definitely not the start of a trend.

Going back to the draft, I also talked about Seth Blair from Arizona State. He was bombed in a College World Series appearance as the top-ranked Sun Devils were eliminated with two quick losses. We'll see if he signs with St. Louis in the near future. Delino DeShields Jr. has yet to sign with Houston but as a high pick, this is not unusual and he is expected to come to terms shortly.

I'm not going to update you on these guys on a regular basis as that's not the focus of the blog, but will let you know if anything interesting happens in terms of their minor league assignments.



Wednesday, June 23, 2010

NHL Road Trip 2010-11

The NHL released its schedule for the 2010-11 season yesterday and as usual, I've put together a possible road trip. I didn't spend much time on it but it works out fairly nicely, with exactly 3 months on the road. No visiting team is seen more than twice and there's no difficult drives on game days. I won't be making this trip, but it's always nice to think about.

Here's the schedule:
October 23  Montreal at Ottawa
October 25 Phoenix at Montreal
October 28 Toronto at Boston
October 29 Montreal at NY Islanders
November 1 Chicago at NY Rangers
November 4 NY Rangers at Philadelphia
November 5 NY Rangers at New Jersey
November 7 Philadelphia at Washington
November 9 Edmonton at Carolina
November 13 Pittsburgh at Atlanta
November 14 Minnesota at Tampa Bay
November 22 Pittsburgh at Florida
November 24 St. Louis at Nashville
November 27 Dallas at St. Louis
December 2 Washington at Dallas
December 4 Florida at Phoenix
December 9 Calgary at Los Angeles
December 10 Calgary at Anaheim
December 11 Chicago at San Jose
December 18 Toronto at Vancouver
December 27 Buffalo at Calgary
December 30 Colorado at Edmonton
January 2 Vancouver at Colorado
January 9 Dallas at Minnesota
January 12 Colorado at Chicago
January 14 Detroit at Columbus
January 15 Columbus at Detroit
January 18 Detroit at Pittsburgh
January 21 NY Islanders at Buffalo
January 22 Washington at Toronto

If you look closely, you'll see there's a long break in Vancouver; this is there so the Maple Leafs vs Canucks game can be included. A real trip would probably not waste so much time in one place.

Of course, there are many other possible trips; I always start these plans in Ottawa and finish in Toronto but you can obviously start and finish anywhere. The Winter Classic in Pittsburgh and the Heritage Classic in Calgary are games that you could build a trip around. If you are planning to see all 30 hockey rinks, you can expect to drive over 12,000 highway miles, about 200 hours over the trip. That's a lot of time for just 30 hours of hockey watching, but I hope I can do it sometime.



Saturday, June 19, 2010

Counting Stadiums

Facebook has an application called "Stadium Tour" that allows you to quickly tally how many sporting venues you have been to. They cover all the major sports plus minor league baseball, some minor league hockey, and even college games. After spending a couple of hours going through my past schedules online, I totaled 209 stadiums that I have been to. Some of these are counted multiple times; for example I saw the Phoenix Suns, Coyotes, and Roadrunners all play in the US Airways Center, so that adds 3 to the tally.

Unfortunately, Stadium Tour doesn't list sports facilities outside North America, where I've lived for the past 14 years. They also lack junior hockey and lacrosse, among other sports. I had to do some serious wracking of my fading memory to remember all the places I've been and also what rules to apply. I've seen dozens of different events in the Tokyo Dome, but I only count Fighters and Giants games there, not the WBC, MLB, all-star, or college games. Essentially the rule is that the stadium can only be counted more than once if it is a professional event that involves a different home team that regularly plays there, such as the Giants and Jets at the Meadowlands.

Going back to my university days, I counted 94 places I've been to that are not listed in the Stadium Tour application. Most of these are in Japan, but there are a few in Europe, Australia, and even Asia. So the grand total right now is 303 sports venues with the total set to rise a bit when I hit Target Field and a few new minor league parks in Iowa next month.

There's not much point to this post other than to perhaps get other road trippers to think about their stadium count. I know some friends of mine are over 400, so I've got some catching up to do. With 80 minor league teams still to visit plus nearly 30 NFL stadiums and lots of minor league hockey to see, I'll be busy road tripping for a while.



Friday, June 18, 2010

Intercity Baseball Tournament Qualifying - June 17, 2010

I've been talking about checking out the Japanese Industrial League tournaments around town and when Thursday turned out to be hot and sunny, I decided to venture back up to Omiya to watch a couple of games in the South Kanto playoff.
The Tournament

The industrial leagues are run by the Japanese Amateur Baseball Association (JABA) and every year they have a nationwide competition known as the Intercity Baseball Tournament. It takes place at the Tokyo Dome in late August. Last year I saw the championship game between Honda and Toyota, but wanted to see some of the preliminary action.

It's a two-step process to reach the main tournament. Each prefecture in the country has an initial qualifying round with winners advancing to a regional tournament. The South Kanto region consists of the prefectures around Tokyo and has 8 teams fighting for 3 spots in the Intercity tournament.

The format is double or triple-elimination to find the 3 winners. Coincidentally, there were 3 industrial league teams and 5 club teams, so it seemed like the tournament wasn't that meaningful as the industrial leaguers are essentially professional while the club squads are semi-pro. Mismatches are therefore common; a couple of early scores were 10-0 and 11-0.

The Games

The first game started at 10, but I didn't arrive until after 11 as Omiya is nearly an hour away. I visited there last year for a Futures game, so won't rehash the ballpark.

When I arrived the game was in the 3rd inning. Honda, last year's champion, was taking on a semi-pro team called Kazusa Magic and already had a 3-0 lead. Although the Magic kept it close, they had no pitching depth and gave up 6 runs in the last two innings for a 10-1 loss. Neither team was eliminated though, Honda advanced to the loser's final while the Magic get a third chance in the double-loser's final (or whatever you call the bracket for teams that have lost twice).

The next game featured two industrial teams: JFE Higashinihon (JFE Steel, shown above in conference) representing Chiba and Nippon Tsuun (Nippon Express) from Saitama. The winner would advance directly to the main tournament while the loser would play Honda the next day with that winner then advancing.

There was one story here: Nippon Express starter, Kazuhisa Makita (below), a sidearm junkballer who never topped 80 on the gun but kept the JFE hitters swinging at air all day long. He pitched a complete game shutout, giving up just a broken-bat single and two walks while striking out 11. He got all the support he needed with a Kenji Suzuki 2-run homer in the second inning. Makita even made a great defensive play, taking a popped bunt and firing to first for a double play, erasing the runner who had singled. Update: Makita was drafted by Seibu in 2010 and won Rookie of the Year that season. After seven seasons with them, he was signed by the Padres, with whom he spent 2018-19, including 27 games in the majors. I did not know any of this until 2021. 

Nippon Express added 7 runs in a 6th inning when the JFE bullpen fell apart after a blown 3rd strike call, but with Makita tossing, it was not really necessary. The final was 9-0 and when the game ended, the Nippon Express cheering section threw streamers (below) while the players ran onto the field to celebrate. Given that they have made the tournament 10 years in a row, I think the celebrations were a bit overdone.

I tried to get a picture of the team tossing their manager in the air, but they did it too close to the fence which was also covered in streamers.


Honda shutout JFE this morning and are in the big tournament again while JFE take on the Magic tomorrow with that winner also advancing.

Update: The JFE /Magic game was actually Sunday and the Magic won 2-1! That's somewhat of an upset and they advanced to the tournament for the first time in 7 years. JFE gets one more chance next month in a playoff game to be determined.

At the end of the 5th inning, there is a lengthy break while the field is cleaned up. What's interesting is that is the players who do the work. Each team takes several rakes and walk over the infield, which is entirely dirt. Only the mound and batters box are done by the grounds crew.

These teams have bands that play all the time and it drives me nuts after a while. I appreciate their enthusiasm but after an hour of hearing the same tunes over and over and over, it becomes dull. The Nippon Express band gets particular mention for including speakers in their set-up; in such a small park that's overkill.

The Tokyo qualifying tournament is held next week and I'll probably head out to see one more day of action, mainly because it is held at a stadium I've yet to see. So check back next week for a post on those games.



Monday, June 14, 2010

The Great New York Baseball Road Trip

I was recently asked to put together some minor league roadtrips for an American publication. The general rules were that the trip had to take place in August, be two weeks long, and involve real minor league games every day if possible. It also had to be realistic and enjoyable, so no stupidly long drives between games. Interesting promotions or giveaways were to be sought, or perhaps a great stadium experience. Given the time constraints, it was a challenge to put together several of these trips but it was also a lot of fun checking out the different promotions across the country.

One of the trip themes I toyed with was visiting your favourite team's affiliates. For example, as a Toronto fan, I would go to Las Vegas, New Hampshire, Dunedin, Lansing, and Auburn, checking out a Blue Jays' minor league team at each stop. Quite a lot of driving and not a practical trip, but still an interesting idea. Given that one constraint was a 2-week trip and no MLB team has more than 6 affiliates, though, this was not an idea that I could work on for the project.

But once the project was over, I thought this theme might work for some of the cities that have two teams. The first city I tried was New York. With 5 minor league teams each, plus a stop in New York to see the big league clubs, it would be a perfect 2-week vacation. Of course, few fans root for both the Yankees and Mets, but it would be worthwhile to see not only the future stars you will support, but those you will hate as well.

At each level, the Yankees' and Mets' affiliates play in the same league and are located close to each other. This made planning the trip fairly easy, as long as the schedules co-operated, which they did. From August 23 to September 5 you could see 12 games, with two days off.

Starting in Buffalo (Mets-AAA), you would work your way across New York state, hitting Binghamton (Mets-AA) and Scranton, PA (Yankees-AAA) before arriving in New York City. There you can see the two NY-Penn League teams in Brooklyn (Mets) and Staten Island (Yankees) as well as the big boys over an extended weekend. After stopping in Trenton (Yankees-AA) you head south to Charleston, SC (Yankees-A) over two days. Savannah (Mets-A) is nearby and then you finish off in Florida where Tampa (Yankees-A+) and St. Lucie (Mets-A+) play.

The long drive back to Buffalo would complete the circuit, but by then the minors have entered their playoffs so it would be a bit more fun to see if you could catch a few games here and there.

The whole trip is as follows:
23-Aug Pawtucket at Buffalo 7:05
24-Aug New Britain at Binghamton 6:35
25-Aug Rochester at Scranton 7:05
26-Aug Lowell at Staten Island 7:00
27-Aug Aberdeen at Brooklyn 7:00
28-Aug Astros at Mets 7:10
29-Aug Off Day to Tour New York (or Astros at Mets 1:10)
30-Aug Athletics at Yankees 7:05
31-Aug Akron at Trenton 7:05
1-Sep Travel Day
2-Sep Greenville at Charleston 7:05
3-Sep Asheville at Savannah 7:05
4-Sep Dunedin at Tampa 7:00
5-Sep Fort Myers at St. Lucie 10:30
If you are a real New York baseball fan, it's something to consider. I could also do the same for Chicago, LA, San Francisco, perhaps Tampa and Florida, or Houston and Texas, but I'll wait for the full schedule next season.



Sunday, June 13, 2010

Kataller Toyama 0 at Tokyo Verdy 1 (J League, Division 2) - June 12, 2010

With the World Cup underway, Japan's J League is taking a 1-month break. This weekend saw the last action until mid-July with a round of games in the second division. One of these matches was held at Komazawa Stadium in southern Tokyo. I used to play road hockey right next to it and had always wanted to see a game there, so couldn't pass up the chance to catch Tokyo Verdy and Kataller Toyama fight it out Saturday afternoon.

Komazawa Stadium

Built in 1964 for the Olympics, Komazawa Stadium is located in Komazawa Park and is one of several sports facilities in the area. The nearest station is Komazawa Daigaku on the Denentoshi line which is 3 stops south of Shibuya station. Avoid the express train though as it passes this station. From the station it is a nice 10-minute walk that takes you through the park. Next to the stadium is a tall structure that is the Olympic control tower, shown above.

The stadium is unique in that there are 6 triangular walls that line one side as you can see above. These provide shade in the upper rows of those sections, but the rest of the stadium is open to the elements. The seating area slopes down at both ends to create a wave-like feeling. As it also hosted track and field events, it is not a soccer-only facility and consequently the seats are some distance away from the pitch, as shown below.

Komazawa is no longer used as a regular home ground for a professional team so the amenities are lacking. The outdoor concourse is small and there is little in the way of food or drink choices inside. The seats themselves are just stools with no back and not that comfortable.

Half the stadium was closed as there were only 3,300 people to fill the 22,000 seats, so I didn't get to do much walking around. Although it is nearly 50 years old, it has held up well and I'm glad I had the opportunity to see a game in this historic venue.

The Teams

Tokyo Verdy was formed in 1969 as a company club for Yomiuri Shimbun, the same firm who owns the Tokyo Giants. Known as Yomiuri F.C. for the first 24 years of their existence, the club benefited from the deep pockets of the owners and won several titles in the 1980s, including the Asian Club Championship in 1988 when their opponent forfeited. When the J League started play in 1993, the team became known as Verdy Kawasaki and continued their success, taking the first two league titles as well as the first two League Cups and enjoying the presence of national team stars such as Kazuyoshi Miura and Ruy Ramos.

Fortunately, this dominance would not last. Yomiuri tried to replicate the national following of its baseball team, but with local teams in more areas and the league gradually losing popularity, the plan failed and the club were unable to sign new talent to replace their aging veterans. Verdy finished mid-table for the rest of the decade and eventually moved back to Tokyo, changing their name to Tokyo Verdy. Success eluded them here as well and they were relegated to J2 in 2005. Although they returned to the top division in 2008, they finished 17th and were sent back down for last season.

This year they had 4 wins and 5 draws in 15 games which was only good enough for 15th in the 19-team league. With 15 goals for and only 14 against though, it seemed like they were a better team than their record indicated.

On the other hand, Kataller Toyama has only been around for two seasons, joining J2 last year and finishing 13th. This season they are just as bad, with only 4 wins and a draw from their 15 matches, suffering a league-worst 30 goals against.

The Game

Kosei Shibasaki sends one deep

Based on the above stats, I figured a low-scoring game was in order and for a change, I was right. It was immediately clear that Toyama were not strong on the backline. Tokyo attacked early and were rewarded when the Toyama defence failed to clear the area in the 12th minute. Midfielder Takuma Abe dribbled past two defenders and chipped the ball over a lunging Yuji Nakagawa (shown below) for his first goal of the season. The rest of the half was rather uneventful as Toyama pressed and managed 6 corners but only a single weak shot on net.

In the second half, Tokyo spent the majority of time in possession but couldn't add to their lead. But with Toyama unable to generate any consistent pressure, it didn't seem like a problem. The Verdy defense was solid and resisted any Toyama attempt, such as below heading another corner away. It wasn't until late in the game that Kataller had a brilliant chance, but the shot was parried away by keeper Yoichi Doi, himself a one-time member of the national team (that's him below in blue).

The game ended 1-0 and was a rather lackluster affair. Tokyo were clearly superior; Toyama didn't look like a professional side in my opinion. With the win, Verdy moved up to 10th in the league while Toyama will continue to languish near the bottom. Not a memorable match but I was able to cross another sports venue off the list (298 and counting).


Tokyo Verdy averaged nearly 15,000 fans last season playing in J1, but this year they are down to 5,500 as they struggle in the second division. Talk about fair weather fans. Of course, given the quality of the match I saw, it's difficult to blame them.

Next Up

Not much on the calendar until I head back to the US for a final baseball trip in July. I will check out one day of industrial league baseball next week when the Tokyo tournament holds its second-round games, but other than that, it will be lots of soccer on TV.



Friday, June 11, 2010

All-Japan University Baseball Championship - June 10, 2010

This week sees the Japanese equivalent of the College World Series being played in Tokyo. There are 26 teams playing a single-elimination tournament over 6 days. Most of the games are held at Jingu Stadium, but a few of the early round matches are held at the Tokyo Dome, which is just a 15-minute bike ride from my apartment.

There were three games on Thursday, with the first starting at 9:00. But I had to watch game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals, so planned on catching the second and third games. Of course, the hockey game went to overtime, but fortunately Patrick Kane scored the Cup winning goal fairly quickly and I was able to get to the ballpark in time for most of the second game.

Tickets were 1,200 yen and you could sit anywhere. There was a surprisingly large crowd on hand but still plenty of seats to choose from. I always enjoy being in a huge stadium with a sparse crowd; it's not a feeling you can get that often.

Game 2 - Toyo University 3 Hakodate University 2

The first game went long, so I only missed a couple of innings of the second game, which featured Toyo and Hakodate. Toyo are the champs of the Tohto League, which is one of Tokyo's lesser known federations. Hakodate won the Hokkaido League which consists of 15 schools based on the northernmost island of Japan. They've had one player drafted in their history, Ryo Sakata who toils for the Seibu Lions minor league team.

When I arrived, Toyo was up 1-0, but Yuki Kobayashi of Hakodate (above) reversed that with a 2-run home run to deep right in the 5th. Hakodate's starter was Shotaro Sato, and he was cruising until the 6th, when he was visibly tiring (turns out he pitched the day before). A bases-loaded single by Yuki Uehara tied the game, and then Atsushi Kimura walked as Toyo regained their 1-run lead.

Hakodate had a great chance to tie the game in the 7th. Kobayashi led off with a fly ball to right that the outfielder lost in the dome's white roof. It bounced in for a 3-base error (that's him arriving at 3rd above). I must say that it is difficult picking up the ball on a sunny day in the dome and it would be unfortunate if a team's season was ruined because they are not used to playing in such conditions.

Anyway, after a walk put men on the corners with nobody out, Toyo brought the infield in and were rewarded with a grounder to second. Kobayashi was off on contact and he was out by a mile. The next batter grounded into an inning-ending double play and the Hakodate threat was done.

Toyo had a chance to add to their lead in their half of the 7th with the bases loaded and nobody out, but after a groundout resulted in a force at home, another good defensive play saw a potential sacrifice fly turn into another out at the plate (below).

Relay above and collision below

Hakodate had a chance to tie in the 9th with a 1-out double, but it was squandered as well and Toyo advanced to the quarter-finals with a 3-2 victory. The teams met at home plate and the captains shook hands in a ritual that adds some sportsmanship to the game.

This game was quite interesting and well-played, and could have gone either way. There wasn't the intensity I expected from such an important game, but this could be due to playing in a stadium that is too big, or to the umpire rushing things along as there was another game to come after that.

Game 3 - Soka University 8 Nara Sangyo University 1 (called after 8)

Soka is based in western Tokyo while Nara Sangyo comes from Nara prefecture near Kyoto. I liked the fact that both teams had colourful uniforms as you can see in the photo below. Soka is in the blue and yellow while Nara wears grey with red trim.

I won't bother recapping the game as it was not close. But there were three memorable plays here. Down 3-0 in the 4th, Nara changed pitchers with runners on second and third. The new pitcher promptly uncorked two wild pitches, including one that sailed to the backstop, and both runners scored to make it 5-0. A little case of the nerves I guess, but that pretty much ended Nara's night.

I was sitting above Nara's dugout and you could tell the players knew they were not going to sneak out a victory. Soka's starter Yasuhiro Ogawa (who pitched two complete games in the 2008 Spring high school tournament) had a 1-hitter through 5 innings and didn't look like he was tiring. In the 6th though, Shota Morimoto launched one to left field to score a run for Nara. That's him connecting above and then scoring below; it was good that they didn't get shutout and the players and the few Nara fans around me enjoyed a muted celebration.

That was to be their only run though as Soka added 2 more to make the final 8-1, which was called after 8 innings on the mercy rule. Ogawa ended up with the 2-hitter complete game, but I actually left after 6 as it had gotten late and I had other places to be. So it was two incomplete games for me that day.

Update (June 13th): Toyo defeated Soka in their quarterfinal match and went on to win the championship. It was their 2nd title in 3 years and I think I will stop referring to the Tohto League as 2nd-tier. The Tokyo Big 6 League gets all the press but the other leagues are just as deserving.

Temporary Souvenir

The third memorable play from the second game was me catching a foul ball. The batter checked his swing and the foul ball just cleared the netting, going over my head. I turned to see it hit and bounce back directly towards me. I reached up and caught it on the fly, earning comments of admiration from the crowd (yeah, right). Sadly, I knew I would not be able to keep my souvenir. In college games, baseballs are at a premium and you have to return any that are hit into the stands. I briefly debated making a run for it but it was only in the 2nd inning, so I decided to stay and give the ball back. If it was in the 6th inning, I might have tried the old dumb foreigner trick and snuck out without returning the ball but didn't get a chance to test the theory.


Overall, it was worth getting out to watch this tournament but I am not a fan of the format. There are 25 games over 6 days and teams may have to play on five consecutive days. Seems like some teams only have one reliable starter (the "ace") who is forced to pitch on back-to-back days. This is not good for the kid's arm but as he is young, he can heal quickly. However, I think there is long-term damage being done and it catches up to him later in their career. There is neither the time or facilities to spread out the tournament, but I wonder how much the overwork hurts these guys in the long run.

Next Up

The World Cup begins today and to celebrate, I'll go watch a J2 soccer game tomorrow afternoon in Komazawa. Check back Sunday for a post on that.



Wednesday, June 9, 2010

World University Baseball Championship Schedule

Last September, I noted that the World University Baseball Championship would be held in Tokyo this summer. I wasn't sure at the time if I would be here, but the baseball gods have smiled on me and I will be back from the next road trip on July 27th, just two days before the tournament starts.

The schedule is out now and Canada is in the same group as the USA, Taiwan, and Sri Lanka, while Japan gets Cuba, Korea, and China. A round robin format is used for placement as all 8 teams will make the quarter-finals. Expect a Japan-USA final, which would be very exciting and a big draw here. I'll be checking out Canada's first round games against Taipei and the USA, as well as some of the playoff action.

I don't think team rosters have been set yet, but there may be some recent draftees here. Whatever the case, it promises to be an interesting tournament so check back for a whole bunch of posts in August.



Tuesday, June 8, 2010

MLB Draft and College Ball

MLB Draft

Today was the first day of the MLB first-year player draft. I watched the first 41 picks on-line, accompanied by the Baseball America draft preview issue. It was quite interesting as teams strayed from the expected order rather early and several top prospects weren't even drafted in the first round. The studio announcers were quite detailed in their analysis, but much of what they said was taken almost verbatim from Baseball America.

Now the fun begins as teams try to sign their selections and assign them to minor league teams. The short season leagues get underway in a couple of weeks and some of today's picks will be sent to those leagues. For those in the Montreal area who were big Delino DeShields fans, his son Delino DeShields Jr. was drafted by Houston 8th overall. If the Astros can sign him, he may eventually wind up on the Tri-City Valley Cats (Troy, NY) in the NY-Penn League. Worth a road trip if he does.

Following up on the game I saw at UCLA in late April, Arizona State's Seth Blair was taken by St. Louis 46th overall. His scouting report is similar to the game I saw: command issues leading to high pitch counts but gets the job done (he threw 113 pitches in 6.2 innings but yielded only one run). I'll see if he signs and where he ends up in the minors.

I mentioned that there were a lot of unexpected early picks; this has to do with signability concerns. Kids coming out of high school can demand huge bonuses and if they don't get what they are looking for, they just head off to college and get drafted a couple of years later. It amazes me that a kid who has just a few hundred high school at bats can demand a multi-million dollar signing bonus. Baseball history is littered with "can't-miss" prospects who missed. It's possible that such a high payout at such a young age affects the motivation of the player, but teams have no choice if they want to be competitive. Last season, MLB clubs spent almost $163 million on signing bonuses, a staggering amount. Remember that's for players that have never seen a major league pitch.

In spite of all this money, I am a big fan of how much baseball information is available now. When I was a kid, we had no idea what was going on behind the scenes in sports, players just magically appeared one season. Now we can follow a player from when he is a high school phenom if not earlier. This certainly makes baseball, particularly the minor leagues, much more interesting and accessible. But with over 1500 players to be drafted, it's impossible to keep track of them all. So I'll follow the Jays first few picks and perhaps Blair and DeShields, just to see what happens over the next few years. I'll keep you posted here, but for those with a deeper interest in the draft, check out the draft page at MLB.com.

College World Series

Many of the players drafted were in action as the regionals of the College World Series were held this past weekend. The NCAA has a great bracket page for those who wish to follow more closely. Both UCLA and Arizona State won their 4-team regionals, so they are just one step away from perhaps meeting again in the CWS in Omaha. In the best-of-3 super-regionals, UCLA will play Cal State Fullerton, who boast Christian Colon (4th overall to Kansas City) as their shortstop. If you are in Los Angeles, try to get to Jackie Robinson Stadium this coming weekend for what should be some exciting super-regional action. Arizona State hosts Arkansas and 3B Zack Cox (26th overall to St. Louis) in Tempe and ESPN2 will be showing the second game of the series live. Wish I could have stayed there an extra couple of weeks though.

For those in northern Florida, going back and forth between Tallahassee and Gainesville would enable you to catch all 4 weekend games in those two super-regionals as the Tallahassee games are afternoon affairs while Gainesville will put on evening encounters. I'm sure a few scouts will be making that roadtrip.

Next Up

It's been a quiet couple of weeks since I got back from the States. Just too much going on in the mornings here, but that should end shortly. In the meantime, there are a few events that merit some attention.

Today was the first day of the Japanese version of the CWS. Known as the All-Japan University Baseball Championship, it's a single-elimination tournament that takes place over 6 days. There are 26 teams entered (one from each university baseball federation in Japan), including Tokyo Big 6 champion Keio. Games are held at the Tokyo Dome and Jingu, and I plan to go see some of them later this week.

I also mentioned the industrial league tournaments being held in the area. I've been following on-line, and right now they are not that interesting. Generally, the early rounds pit semi-pro teams that play for companies such as Honda against amateur club teams, so the games are not competitive. Some of the scores in the Tokyo tournament were 16-0, 15-2, 15-1, and 31-2. That's not a compelling reason to go watch them at this point; I'll wait until late June when the top 8 teams face off closer to my home.

I've also noticed that soccer's J2 League has a game in Komazawa Stadium this coming weekend. I used to play ball hockey next to the stadium, but never had a chance to get inside, so I'll be visiting there on Saturday afternoon. As usual, check back for posts on all these events.



Sunday, June 6, 2010

Pennant Races and Game Times

The MLB season has 162 games, which divides neatly into three 54-game segments. The first of these has just completed and I wanted to post the standings here. I'll compare them after 108 games, and then near the end of the season.

These standings show each team's record after 54 games. Of course, some teams reach 54 games before others due to scheduling differences, but for comparison purposes, this version works well.

AL East W L GB
Tampa Bay 36 18
New York 34 20 2
Boston 31 23 5
Toronto 31 23 5
Baltimore 15 39 21

AL Central W L GB
Minnesota 31 23
Detroit 28 26 3
Chicago 23 31 8
Kansas City 22 32 9
Cleveland 21 33 10

AL West W L GB
Texas 29 25
Oakland 28 26 1
Los Angeles 26 28 3
Seattle 22 32 7

NL East W L GB
Atlanta 32 22
Philadelphia 30 24 2
Florida 27 27 5
New York 27 27 5
Washington 26 28 6

NL Central W L GB
Cincinnati 31 23
St. Louis 31 23
Chicago 24 30 6
Milwaukee 22 32 9
Pittsburgh 22 32 9
Houston 20 34 11

NL West W L GB
San Diego 32 22
Los Angeles 31 23 1
San Francisco 29 25 3
Colorado 28 26 4
Arizona 20 34 12

The first interesting point is that only two teams were 27-27. There are several very good teams (30 or more wins) and just as many very bad teams (24 wins or less). But it's too early to make any conclusions, this will be more meaningful later in the season.
The pennant races are close, with no lead greater than 3 games. It will be interesting to see if Cincinnati and San Diego can keep up their good play. Out of last year's playoff teams, only 3 would make the playoffs this year (Yankees, Twins and either Dodgers or Cardinals) but the other 5 teams are in the hunt, with Anaheim the only team to be below .500. There's still 108 games left, but it looks like two-team races at this point in the two central divisions.

Toronto is a respectable 31-23 but lies out of the playoff mix as the two best teams are in the same division. They will get more AL East games in the next couple of months, which will probably make or break their season.

I'll update this in early August and we'll see how things have progressed then.

Game Times

If you read regularly, you know that I like fast-paced baseball. Of course, there's the ridiculously long Yankees-Red Sox games that seem to be 4 hours now, which drew the ire of umpire Joe West at the beginning of the season. It is true that those teams are better at working counts but they still take too freaking long to play the game. In the article linked above, Jonathan Papelbon stated:

"Have you ever gone to watch a movie and thought, 'Man, this movie is so good I wish it would have never ended.' That's like a Red Sox-Yankees game. Why would you want it to end?"

"If you don't want to be there, don't be there. Go home. Why are you complaining. I'm not going to sit somewhere I don't want to be. If you go to a movie or any entertainment event and you like it, you're going to stay and watch and you're not going to want it to end. If you don't, then you won't. Why is it such a big deal?"

I'll ignore his arrogance because I certainly don't find their games that thrilling. But he misses the point. I want to be at these games, but I don't want to see posturing, countless mound visits, timeouts after every pitch. Yes, after 3 hours, I would like the game to be over, or tied in extra innings. Let me be clear: I'm happy if a game goes 15 innings and takes 5 hours, because they are playing quickly. But I don't enjoy 9-inning games that last well over 3 hours. Baseball is great because it has a certain pace, a reliable, consistent march through the innings; lose the pace and I lose interest.

You might then wonder how I can sit through 7 hours of cricket in a single day. The answer is action. A day of test cricket might have 96 overs or 576 balls thrown. Over 6 hours of playing time, this is a reasonable level of action.

But a baseball game will have somewhere around 300 pitches thrown in 9 innings. This is 100 pitches per hour, or about 1.67 pitches per minute, which is about right with the inning breaks. If baseball games took 7 hours for 300 pitches, nobody would go. But doubleheaders might have 600 pitches, take 7 hours, and are always great value and popular. So the key is to make sure that my time is being spent watching the players play instead of watching them waste everybody's time.

Comparison of MLB and NPB

My biggest complaint about Japanese baseball is the slowness of the games. I've been to too many 3 1/2 hour games that seem to drag on and on. But I never had any numbers to back it up, other than the NPB's home page which showed the average 9-inning game at 3:09.

So I decided to do some statistical analysis using a small number of games from the two leagues to if there were more pitches in the Japanese games or if there was something else causing the longer game. I should note that it is my perception that Japanese batters don't swing as often and Japanese pitchers nibble more and throw more pitches per batter; it seems that there are more full counts in the NPB, so I expected more pitches in a Japanese game.

Anyway, I chose the 12 NPB games from this weekend (June 5th and 6th). I also chose the 12 longest 9-inning MLB games played on June 5th. I realize that's not many games, but it's a start.

The average game time in Japan was 3:12, 16 minutes longer than the average MLB game. But there were also slightly more pitches per game in Japan: 295 to 290. When you break this down to the number of pitches per minute (PPM) you get 1.54 in Japan and 1.64 in the majors. Which means that the pace of MLB games is only 6.8% faster than what we get here. Not a massive difference (1 pitch every 10 minutes, likely not noticeable to a fan), but certainly noteworthy. So there are more pitches in Japan as I expected, but the games are definitely played at a slower pace too.

In order to see if this is really statistically significant, I'll need to do this for about 100 games for each league. Getting the data is time-consuming, but I'll try to do it over the next week or two and see if anything interesting pops up.

I should note that the other leagues in Japan don't suffer from this. Minor league games, college ball, high school, industrial league; they all play quickly. It's just the NPB that drags things out those extra 10 or 15 minutes and I'm not sure why that is.



Friday, June 4, 2010

Tokyo Apache Bought by LA Firm

The NHL and NBA playoffs are underway and keeping me at home most mornings. The weather here is great, so I do try to get out in the afternoon, but haven't had the time to catch a game since Monday.

In the meantime, I noticed an interesting article about my favourite local basketball team, the Tokyo Apache. Seems like they have been bought by Evolution Capital Management, a Los Angeles based investment management advisor. I'm not sure how they will run the team or what particular expertise they might have in pro sports, but the new GM did play college ball, so it should be an interesting season coming up. As the article noted, the Apache had one of the worst attendances despite playing in a huge market, so let's hope that Evolution has some marketing capability to bring the Apache to the forefront of the Tokyo sports scene.