Thursday, March 29, 2012

Seattle Mariners 3 at Oakland Athletics 1 (11) - March 28, 2012

I wasn't planning to write a post for the MLB Season Opener, but the pre-game ceremony was interesting, so I've decided to do a short recap after all.

This was the fourth time that Major League Baseball began its season in Japan. This year was special though, as Mariners’ star right fielder Ichiro Suzuki would be playing his first meaningful MLB games in his home country. Tickets were a hot commodity and prospective buyers had to enter a lottery in February for a chance to win tickets before they went on sale to the general public. I was fortunate to win a pair of seats down the right field line and my girlfriend accompanied me to a sold-out Tokyo Dome.

As this was an MLB game, extra security precautions were required. First, a small plastic bag was handed out and all fans were instructed to place metal objects into this plastic bag before going through the metal detector. Of course, carrying two cameras, binoculars, and a cell phone, there was no way everything would fit into the tiny bag, but it didn’t matter. At the gate, my knapsack was scanned by an earnest young man who asked permission to use his white-gloved hands to check the belongings. The check was cursory at best, more to ensure that I did not have any cans or bottles rather than anything dangerous.

I had chosen the line that bypassed the walkthrough metal detector; instead I was greeted by a cute young lady who performed another check using a wand. Interestingly, she only scanned my body and not the knapsack, finding nothing of interest and allowing me to finally enter the dome.

My seat was far down the right field line, in the 8th row of the upper deck. Despite being about 400 feet away, we were duly warned before the game to be aware of foul balls coming our way. If you were to be hit by a foul ball sitting this far from the plate, you deserve your injuries, but regardless, no foul balls came remotely close to us.

As game time approached, Amy and Joe Franz, Mariner season ticket holders and inventors of the Ichimeter, the signboard they use to count up Ichiro's hits, were shown on the big screen to much applause. They are probably more famous here than most of the Athletics.

The pre-game ceremony was focused on Tomodachi, a new initiative that is designed to deepen relations between the US and Japan after the 2011 disasters. The US Army Band from nearby Camp Zama marched onto the field and a large flag for each nation was unfurled.

Lights were dimmed and there was a lengthy video dedicated to three heroes from March 11, including Taylor Anderson, an American teacher who lost her life in the tsunami after ensuring that her students were safe. Derek Jeter, Bobby Valentine, and Cal Ripken Jr. each narrated one story. When the video ended, a Tomodachi flag was revealed between the other two to symbolize the growing friendship between the two nations.

When the home-team Athletics took the field, they were joined by some young baseball all-stars from the Tohoku region. After that, the national anthems were sung, with famous actor/singer Ryotaro Sugi performing Kimi Ga Yo much to the surprise of the locals, who gasped when his named was announced.

With the ceremonies complete, it was time for the baseball season to start. Brandon McCarthy took the mound for the A’s and at 7:08, threw a called strike to Chone Figgins. Two batters later, Ichiro approached the plate and the crowd erupted with a long ovation. It is difficult to overstate just how much of an icon he is here in Japan; he is the most successful athlete to have played overseas and a great source of pride for Japanese people. Every pitch to him saw thousands of flashbulbs going off. He was not distracted in the least, knocking an infield single off of McCarthy’s glove (that's him above, reaching first on another infield hit later in the game).

Coco Crisp flies out

I’ll avoid a detailed recap here, other than to say that it was a great game with the Mariners winning 3-1 in 11 innings. Ichiro going 4/5 and adding the insurance RBI. It was just my type of game, with good pitching and aggressive hitting, which meant that not a single walk was issued on the evening. Cuban rookie Yoenis Cespedes (above) received mixed reviews in his first MLB action as he smashed a double in 3 at-bats, while striking out twice. The game officially took 3:04, but the scoreboard operator let the timer run a few extra seconds I guess.

Next Up

I've added another couple of Japanese destinations to my schedule in order to get all the NPB stadiums reviewed for Stadium Journey. This weekend I'll travel to Sendai to watch the Rakuten Golden Eagles host Chiba in an afternoon affair before moving over to Yurtec Stadium to watch the US Women's National Soccer team take on Nadeshiko Japan in a rematch of last year's World Cup final. I've also added a night in Fukuoka on April 10th for a Hawks game. In between, I'll be in Sapporo for a few days to catch the Fighters and Consadole, both tenants of the Sapporo Dome. Check back often for updates.



Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Okinawa Options - Part 2

In late 2010, I visited Okinawa and posted a short summary of some things to do on the southern half of the island.

This time I rented a car and spent the week up north, which is less populous but has a number of interesting attractions that draw the tourists. If you want to get away from the masses, there are some beautiful and secluded beaches. It was too cold to spend much more than a few minutes in the water, but warm enough to enjoy a few hours on the sand, with nobody else in sight.

Ocean Expo Park/Churaumi Aquarium

On the western side of Motobu is Ocean Expo Park, a large open-air complex with several activities, many of which are free. At the north end is the Ocean Zone, with a dolphin lagoon as well as a regularly scheduled dolphin show, a manatee exhibit, and a turtle tank which allows views from underwater. I don't think the turtles enjoy being gawked at though, judging by this fellow's expression.

The south end of the park is the Flowers and Greenery Zone, with a tropical arboretum and an orchid house. In between is the History and Culture Zone, with a native Okinawan house and a culture museum. There is a lot to see here, but the highlight is undoubtedly the Churaumi Aquarium, opened in 2002 and still sparkling. Regular admission is 1,800 yen but after 4 pm this drops to 1,260 yen and the crowds begin to clear up around then as well, making it the best time to arrive.

There are a number of exhibits here, including a coral reef with hundreds of species of fish that saves you the trouble of scuba diving to see them. Most notable though is the Kuroshio Sea tank, which contains nearly 2 million gallons of water along with 3 whale sharks (one in the picture below) and several manta rays, four of which have been bred here. It is truly incredible and you can even go above the tank to hear explanations (in Japanese) of how they keep things working. This is the top attraction on Okinawa and well worth visiting.

Nakijin Castle Ruins

In the 13th century, Okinawa was known as Ryukyu and was divided into three areas, each ruled by a king, who lived in a castle, known as a gusuku. Nakijin was the center of the northern kingdom, and it was here that a large castle fortress was constructed. It was later destroyed during an attack from the central kingdom but the ruins remain today as a tourist attraction that is also a World Heritage site. The castle walls remain (below) and there is a walking path up to the top of the hill.

There is an English brochure that explains in detail the different areas of the ruins, which take about an hour to tour. The wonderful view from the top takes in the East China Sea and the surrounding countryside.

There is also a museum on site, but as it is rather cluttered and without English explanations, it doesn't merit more than a quick walkthrough. At 400 yen, this is a nice way to spend the morning before heading over to the aquarium after lunch.

Okinawa Fruits Land

One of many different fruit-related theme parks near Nago, Okinawa Fruits Land is a small building that houses a number of tropical fruit trees, as well as a butterfly garden (with a single species) and an aviary. It's not very exciting and at 800 yen, rather overpriced. Best to spend time at the Nago Pineapple Park instead.


Not a tourist attraction, rather is a pizza restaurant that is located atop a hill with great views of the seaside far below. Colloquially known as "Pizza in the Sky", the food is very good here, although there is only one variety of pizza available. You can enjoy your meal on picnic tables outside if you prefer, and there are plenty of tables inside as well, a necessity as this place is very popular. The drive up the hill is along a narrow road and might be a small adventure if you are not used to driving in Japan, but once you take your first bite of pizza, you will be thankful you made it.

All in all, Okinawa is a fantastic vacation destination. These are just a few of the possibilities to tempt you to visit. I've been here half a dozen times now and am looking forward to my return as soon as possible.

Sunset from Naha Airport



Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Osaka Evessa 75 at Ryukyu Golden Kings 70 (bj League) - March 25, 2012

After a relaxing week on the north coast of Okinawa, I returned to Naha for my flight back to Tokyo. The flight wasn't until the evening, so I had to find something to do in the city during the day. Fortunately, the Ryukyu Golden Kings, the bj League's best team, were at home in Naha that day so I was able to drive over and watch them taking on the Osaka Evessa, who are the number 2 squad in the nation.

Naha City Gymnasium

The venue was the Naha City Gymnasium which has little available parking, so rather than navigate the back streets, I parked at a nearby shopping mall and took a free shuttle bus to the game. I arrived about 10 minutes before tip off and picked up the cheapest ticket, a 2,000 yen unreserved seat in the second level. I thought it would be no problem to find a seat but when I entered the seating area, the lights went out as it was time for introductions. By the time the lights were switched on, I realized that this was not a typical bj League game with few fans and lots of seats; instead over 3,000 were on hand for this battle and there were few open spots. I managed to find a good seat after the first quarter had ended, but will definitely try to get there earlier next time.

There's not much to this place as it is normally just a municipal gym, not a real pro sports venue. Like all bj League teams, the Golden Kings play in a number of different locations over the season, so there is no permanent infrastructure set up. There are a few temporary food stands and a team store, but little else. My culinary recommendation here would be the taco rice donburi for 500 yen, simply because it was the only item that was sold out and it looked pretty appealing.

It was nice to see a bit of history commemorated with some banners commemorating the Kings' success over the years, including a championship 3 seasons ago.

The Game

This was the second of two consecutive games, as nearly all bj League affairs are weekend doubleheaders to save on travel costs. Osaka was suffering from the loss of Lynn Washington, who had been arrested a couple of weeks before on drug importation charges, and they were crushed by Ryukyu 97-75 the night before.

Despite this being the second game of a back-to-back, it was very fast paced to start, with the first quarter taking just 15 minutes of real time to play (bj League quarters are 10 minutes long). The referees were great, letting the action unfold without calling any silly fouls, and the players responded with some great physical play. Both teams were solid defensively and the first quarter ended 16-13 in favour of the home team, dressed in gold.

Cohey Aoki, a former member of the Apache, takes a shot for Osaka.

The second stanza saw the Kings increase their lead to 10 but Evessa ended the half on a 14-4 run to tie the game at 37 at the break. Below is Osaka's Masashi Obushi slicing through the Kings' defense for a lay up.

The third quarter belonged to Ryukyu, who dominated the offensive glass but were hurt by poor shooting, particularly from the charity stripe, and could only take a 62-55 lead into the final frame.

When Osaka scored the first 7 points of the fourth, the game was again tied and momentum was on the side of the visitors. Defense took over and for about 5 minutes, neither team was able to score two consecutive baskets.

With Osaka up 69-68 and less than 3 minutes to go, Bobby St. Preux sank a three-pointer to increase the lead to four. Osaka then clamped down on the Kings, allowing only two free throws but no other baskets. Ryukyu didn't foul down the stretch for some reason, allowing Osaka to escape with a 75-70 road win to split the weekend set. Interestingly, they scored 75 points both times, but their defense was excellent in this game and the major factor in their victory.

Osaka's Mike Bell (below) led all scorers with 17 points while adding 13 rebounds. This was a gritty defensive contest with the Kings' inability to score from beyond the arc hurting them (they went just 3 for 16) as much as the Evessa's pressing defense. These two teams might meet again in the Western Conference final, part of the "Final Four" to be held in Tokyo on May 19th and 20th. Unfortunately, I'll have left Japan by then, but if you are around and like basketball, check it out.


I've mentioned this before, but Okinawa has the strongest community feeling among all areas of Japan and this is demonstrated both in the team and its fans. The Golden Kings count 6 Okinawan natives on their roster, and the fans appreciate the local talent, coming out in droves and cheering loudly, helped along by a constant drumbeat on offense and an MC chanting "defense". It is great that this team can draw 3,000 fans from a relatively small population; compare that to the now-defunct Tokyo Apache, who could barely muster 1,000 or so fans from the largest metro area in the world.

Next Up

Tomorrow sees the Mariners and Athletics open the MLB season at the Tokyo Dome and I'll be there to check it out, but will avoid posting an update. Next week I'm off to Sapporo for two games, so check back then for some recaps.



Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Quest for 400

Happy Birthday to me! Or at least to the blog. Sports Road Trips is three years old today and it's time to change it up a bit. I've been doing odd trips over those years, generally when I found a bit of free time and spare cash, but there hasn't been a lot of rhyme or reason behind them. Mostly I've been trying to see Toronto teams on the road and all the new baseball stadiums, and then finding other games in the vicinity.

I've decided that this is no longer the best way to approach these trips, so I've set a goal to complete visits to 400 pro stadiums in North America over the next five years. Now, I've already been to nearly 300 venues across the continent, plus another 75 or so in far-flung international locations, but that was using a more scattershot approach. Since I'm only planning to do this for a few more years, I want to set a goal and use the blog to monitor progress.

What I've done is found 25 leagues that total 400 teams. I hope to see a game in each of those venues that I have yet to visit by the time I retire from this in 2017. The rules are as follows:

1) the game must be a regular season or playoff game, no pre-season antics allowed
2) the home team must be present. So although I saw the First Niagara Center twice (when it was the HSBC Arena), once was for an exhibition game and the other time was for the World Junior Hockey Championships, so it is still on the list to visit.
3) a full game must be played. I saw 5 innings in New Hampshire one year and so need to drop by again to consider it official.
4) Once a stadium becomes inactive, the new stadium is added back to the list. When the Atlanta Trashers moved to Winnipeg, Phillips Arena no longer counted as an NHL venue, so I had to check out the MTS Centre to stay current. This rule is most difficult in minor league baseball, which sees franchise relocations and new ballparks every year.

The breakdown of the 400 is as follows, with the number of active venues I have seen listed.

MLB: 29/30 - Marlins Stadium to be knocked off the list this summer.
NHL: 27/30 - Buffalo and Boston have been seen before, but not under the rules. Carolina also on the list.
NFL: 7/32 - Need to do an NFL roadtrip one of these years, it is too tough to see more than two games on the sort of trips I do, which are usually in the summer.
NBA: 19/30 - Not something I'm particularly keen on but will try to knock them off during the NFL trip
Minor league baseball: 70/150 - Not including independent leagues, there are 13 affiliated minor league circuits that I count here, excluding the Appalachian League. I was surprised at how low the number I've seen is, it used to be nearly 90 which shows you how much franchise movement and ballpark construction there is at this level.
AHL: 5/30
ECHL: 6/22 - another league with far too much franchise movement.
CHL: 1/16
MLS: 1/19 - Like the NFL, a difficult one to get when I travel. Three Canadian teams now.
NBA D-League: 2/16 - Yep, even minor league basketball.
CFL: 1/8: - Gotta get out west again.
NLL: 1/9 - Have seen two franchises that have moved, but the league has reached relative stability
MLL: 0/8 - When I started planning this, there were only 6, but they expanded for this season.

A rather arbitrary list of leagues but it totals nicely to 400 venues with Major League Lacrosse expanding 8 teams. I'm ignoring college sports for one main reason: too many venues. There are 345 here alone in Division 1 basketball and I am not immortal (nor a millionaire). I'm also ignoring junior hockey rinks as I want to focus only on professional sports. That doesn't mean I won't visit those places when opportunity presents itself, but I will not be counting them on this list.

Out of the 400, I have only visited 169 of them, a surprisingly low number (my overall venue count is 362). That makes 231 to go, not including new stadiums which will certainly be built. I'd estimate about 50 per year over the next five years to make it. I'm going to track this on the following page, along with my total venue count. I should note that this quest is predicated on my moving back to North America next year. If that doesn't happen, I won't be able to get home often enough to achieve this. But If I do move back, then it will be interesting to see if I get even close.



Sunday, March 18, 2012

Yokohama DeNA BayStars 6 at Yomiuri Giants 3 (Eastern League) - March 18th, 2012

Happy St. Patrick's Weekend! Last year at this time, I wrote a piece on the poor media reporting after the earthquake and tsunami that hit the Tohoku area. One year later, there has been much progress in the recovery but there is still a long, long way to go. Not that the media will tell you that; there has been very little substantive reporting overseas other than a blip last weekend during the anniversary. Even then, for us in Japan, things are essentially back to normal outside the affected area. I'm not trying to be glib, but the rest of the country has moved on. Unlike last year, baseball is starting on time, and here, the minor leagues begin play a week or two before the big guys get started. It was opening day yesterday but rain postponed the first game until today, when the Yomiuri Giants hosted the renamed Yokohama DeNA BayStars.

Yes, the only ballclub that had forsaken a corporate sponsor was bought last year by DeNA (pronounced D-N-A) who promptly stuck their stupid name in the team's moniker. DeNA are some sort of online service company but I don't care, they are pure evil for doing this.

Anyway, the game started 30 minutes before the other two scheduled matches, so it was officially the first regular season pro game of the year. And as it was being played at my favorite minor league stadium, I had no choice but to go. About 1,100 similarly-minded fans braved a dreary drizzle to open their accounts on the 2012 season. To mark the occasion, there was an opening-day ceremony that featured a taiko drum display in the seating area that was appreciated by players and fans alike. After that, Giants' manager, all-time sacrifice bunt king Masashiro Kawai, then gave a short speech (without a mike) and that was it, the season was underway.

The game started with a bang when Atsushi Kita smashed the first pitch of the year deep over the right field fence (below). It immediately looked like perennial losers Yokohama were going to enjoy the change in their DeNA.

Or would they? The Giants' Daisuke Nakai managed a 2-run homer in the bottom of the first when the ball bounced off the top of the left-field fence. After that, the teams traded zeroes until the Giants used a walk, two wild pitches, and a sacrifice fly to take a 3-1 lead after 6.

That is when the Yomiuri bullpen imploded. In the 7th, Yuki Koyama gave up two singles and a walk to load the bases and Tatsuya Shimozono singled to drive home a couple and tie the game. Things got worse for the home team in the 8th as Norihito Kaneto allowed three runs (two earned) with the big blow a 2-run double from catcher Kenjiro Tsuruoka, who had started the rally in the 7th as a pinch-hitter.

Although the Giants got the tying run to the plate in the 9th, Atori Ota induced Nakai to fly out to deep center to finish the match. Ota, who goes by his first name, recorded the win by pitching three shutout innings in relief.

Both teams finished with 11 hits, but Yokohama bunched theirs together and came away victorious. It was a long game in poor weather, but I was glad to see Yokohama pull one out. Whether the big-league squad will be any good still remains to be seen.


The BayStars have new uniforms with DeNA on them. I wasn't sitting close enough to get a good picture, but the shot of starter Shugo Fujii gives you an idea.

Oscar Salazar was the only non-Japanese on the field today. Generally there are few foreigners at this level, as most of them are brought over to help the big team win. I am not sure why Salazar is with the BayStars' junior club, but he went 0-5, although he crushed a ball that was caught at the center field wall.

There is a lucky number contest that is played at every game at this stadium. Your ticket has a number on it and after the 5th inning about 20 various prizes are awarded. Today they had a bonus prize where fans holding tickets ending in 1,4,6 or 9 got to go on the field after the game and receive an autograph from one Giants player. That meant about 400 people total and it took them a while to get organized, with a lineup of about 25 fans for each player. A nice touch that I hadn't seen before. In the photo below, you can also see how terrible the field is at this early stage, it appears to be just dead grass.

Next Up

Things are getting busy. I've got a trip to Okinawa from Tuesday that will see me attend a battle of the top two western teams in the bj League, Ryukyu and Osaka. Lynn Washington, Osaka's best player and a 2-time MVP who has been in the league since its inception, was arrested earlier this week and will therefore not be playing. It is perhaps the biggest news to hit the league and certainly not the sort of publicity it was seeking. This is a bit of a disappointment for me as I was hoping to see him in action against some of the Ryukyu stars, but it should still be a good contest.

The week following will see the MLB season-opening game between the Athletics and Mariners as well as the Rugby 7s that weekend. After that I'm off to Hokkaido to see a baseball and soccer game over three days and finally add the Sapporo Dome to my list. Oh yeah, I'm also leaving Japan on May 5th. It will be a hectic time, so check back often to see what's happening.



Monday, March 12, 2012

NHL Playoff Race After 68 Games

At the end of 2011, I posted the NHL standings after 27 games, because at that time, some teams had played more games than others and it was tough to see just where they stood relative to each other. The 27-game mark is also about 1/3 of the way through the season, and I intended to post an update after 55 games, which would be the 2/3 mark. However, most teams completed their 55th game while I was on my most recent road trip and I didn't have time to do the analysis. So I've let the schedule run on a bit and am now posting the standings after 68 games played, as this makes for exactly half a season since the first post.

First, here are the points for the middle half of the season, ignoring divisional breakdowns.
NY Rangers      55
New Jersey      54
Pittsburgh      53
Ottawa          49
Boston          48
Philadelphia    48
Carolina        47
Washington      45
Tampa Bay       45
Winnipeg        44
Florida         43
NY Islanders    41
Buffalo         40
Toronto         36
Montreal        35

St. Louis       60
Nashville       59
Vancouver       59
Detroit         56
Dallas          48
Calgary         48
Colorado        47
Anaheim         47
San Jose        45
Chicago         44
Los Angeles     44
Phoenix         43
Columbus        32
Minnesota       31
Edmonton        30
St. Louis and New York Rangers led their conferences, which is not surprising as they both lead after 68 games as well. What is clear is that the West had a better top four with Detroit's 56 points enough to take first in the East. Perhaps the most interesting point is that the top three teams in the East are from the same division (Atlantic), and 3 of 4 in the West are also from the same division (Central) . I don't think it is much of a stretch to predict a Stanley Cup final between squads from these two divisions.

Toronto was only one point better than woeful Montreal during that stretch. They won 15 games in their first 27, then 15 in their next 41. See you next year.

Here's the 68-game standings, with that teams conference position after 27 games in brackets:

East            GP  W   L  OT   PTS
NY Rangers (1)  68  43  18  7   93
Boston (2)      68  40  25  3   83
Florida (3)     68  32  23 13   77
Pittsburgh (5)  68  42  21  5   89
Philadelphia (4)68  39  22  7   85
New Jersey (10) 68  39  24  5   83
Ottawa (9)      68  35  25  8   78
Washington (8)  68  34  28  6   74
Winnipeg (11)   68  32  28  8   72
Buffalo (7)     68  31  29  8   70
Tampa Bay (13)  68  31  30  7   69
Toronto (6)     68  30  30  8   68
Carolina (15)   68  26  27 15   67
Islanders (14)  68  28  31  9   65
Montreal (12)   68  26  32 10   62

West            GP  W   L  OT  PTS
St. Louis (6)   68  43  18  7   93
Vancouver (5)   68  42  18  8   92
Dallas (8)      68  37  26  5   79
Detroit (2)     68  44  21  3   91
Nashville (11)  68  40  21  7   87
Chicago (4)     68  36  25  7   79
San Jose (3)    68  34  25  9   77
Phoenix (7)     68  33  25 10   76
Colorado (12)   68  35  29  4   74
Calgary (13)    68  31  25 12   74
Los Angeles (9) 68  31  25 12   74
Anaheim (14)    68  29  29 10   68
Minnesota (1)   68  29  29 10   68
Edmonton (10)   68  26  35  7   59
Columbus (15)   68  22  39  7   51
Nothing much surprising here, there are only two spots up for grabs in the East with Buffalo going up against the Southeast teams, one of which will take the 3rd seed. Essentially Ottawa and New Jersey played themselves into the playoffs at the expense of Buffalo and Toronto.

In the West, Nashville knocked out LA, but the Kings are on the doorstep with two other teams in what should be an interesting race.

Generally though, both conferences have four stronger teams that should be fighting it out in the second round. However, note the two 4-5 matchups, both between these superior teams. The weak 3rd seed in both conferences means it is better to finish 6th than 5th, at least in the first round.

Let's have a quick playoff simulation, using the regular season series:

1st round
NY Rangers/Washington - Rangers lead 2-1
Boston/Ottawa - Boston leads 4-1
Florida/New Jersey - Florida leads 2-1-1
Pittsburgh/Philadelphia - Philadelphia lead 2-1
St. Louis/Phoenix - St. Louis leads 2-0
Vancouver/San Jose - Vancouver leads 3-0-1
Dallas/Chicago - Dallas leads 2-1
Detroit/Nashville - Detroit leads 3-2

No upsets here.

2nd round
NY Rangers/Philadelphia - Rangers lead 5-0
Boston/Florida - Boston leads 2-1
St. Louis/Detroit - Detroit leads 3-2
Vancouver/Dallas - Dallas leads 2-0

The West sees top two seeds go down.

NY Rangers/Boston - Rangers lead 3-0
Dallas/Detroit - Detroit leads 4-0

Weak third seed finally shown the exit in the West.

Stanley Cup
NY Rangers/Detroit - Rangers won on March 21st, so they will be the champs!

Update (June, 2012): Nope, LA wins, just as I predicted last year! So look for the Rangers to win in 2013, assuming there is a season.



Thursday, March 8, 2012

Canadian Soccer Roadtrip in LA

Toronto FC are the new kid on the block in terms of the city's pro sports teams and although they have not had much success in their first 5 seasons, they are the Canadian champion which allows them entry into the CONCACAF Champions League. They finished second in group play and advanced to the quarterfinals, where they are taking on the defending MLS champs, the Los Angeles Galaxy.

The first leg was played today and finished 2-2 after Toronto had taken a 2-0 lead. The second and decisive leg is to be played at the Home Depot Center in Carson, CA on March 14th. That got me thinking about flying over to LA to check out the game so I had a look at the MLS schedule and was intrigued to find that the Vancouver Whitecaps would be visiting the very same stadium on March 17th to face Chivas USA.

A quick check of other leagues revealed an ECHL game in Ontario on Tuesday, and the Clippers and Lakers home between Thursday and Saturday, among other possibilities.

Here's one potential schedule:
Tue Mar 13  Idaho Steelheads at Ontario Reign (ECHL) 7:00
Wed Mar 14 Toronto FC at Los Angeles Galaxy (CCL) 7:00
Thu Mar 15 Indiana Hoosiers at Loyola Marymount Lions (NCAA Baseball) 3:00
Thu Mar 15 Phoenix Suns at Los Angeles Clippers 7:30
Fri Mar 16 Minnesota Timberwolves at Los Angeles Lakers 7:30
Sat Mar 17 Houston Rockets at Los Angeles Clippers 12:30
Sat Mar 17 Vancouver Whitecaps at Chivas USA 7:30
I won't be able to make the trip as I'm going to Okinawa the following week, but it is fun to think about.



Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Two April Road Trips Planned for Japan

I'm not working full-time right now, which gives me a chance to take a few weekday trips before I leave Japan. With the AFC Champions League, J League, and Japanese baseball all starting this month, there are some good chances to get a look at some venues I've yet to see, as well as make a final visit to those I haven't been to in a very long time.

The first of these trips will see me flying up to Hokkaido to see the Sapporo Dome host two different sports. First the Nippon Ham Fighters will take on the Orix Buffaloes in Pacific League baseball action on Thursday, April 5th, then the J League takes center stage with the newly promoted Consadole hosting last year's champs, Kashiwa Reysol, on Saturday.

The second trip will start at home when FC Tokyo welcome Beijing Guoan for an AFC Champions League tilt on Tuesday, April 18th. The next day I head to Nagoya to see another Chinese team visiting, this time Tianjin Teda who will play Nagoya Grampus. The baseball scheduler was kind and I'll spend two more days in Nagoya to see the Chunichi Dragons hosting the hated Yomiuri Giants in Central League play on Thursday, and then their minor league team will play the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in Western League action on Friday afternoon.

Both are short trips that will probably be the last while I am a resident of Japan. I'm planning a trip to Osaka in August but that will be after I have established myself somewhere else in the world. Of course, there's a lot else on the calendar, including a month in Florida in June, so keep checking back for updates.



Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Expanded MLB Playoffs - Not a Bad Thing After All

In 2010, I ranted against MLB's proposal for an additional wild card team. My concerns were the further devaluation of the season as well as having another playoff series push back the divisional round. Naturally, Bud and his boys ignored my post and went forward with their plan to have a 5th playoff team in each league, starting this season.

Surprisingly though, I actually like what they've done. In fact, I'll go as far to say that they haven't really expanded the playoffs at all, instead, they've reduced the benefit of grabbing the wild card spot. The one-game playoff is really more of a "play-in" game rather than a true playoff series, kind of like that additional game in the NCAA tournament.

The winner of the wild card play-in game will then advance to the playoffs with the three division winners, with the notable disadvantage of already having used one of their best pitchers. As well, the wild card will face the best team in the league regardless of which division they are in. Until now, the wild card played the best squad not in their division as MLB vainly tried to have as many Yankees-Red Sox ALCS's as possible.

Several media outlets have been comparing the percentage of teams making the playoffs in MLB to that in the other big 4 leagues, saying that they still only admit 33% of their teams to the playoffs, while the other leagues are between 37.5% and 53.3%. The implication is that it is more difficult to qualify for the postseason in baseball so this "expansion" is perfectly acceptable. Of course, this misses the point that the other leagues admit too many teams, particularly the NHL and NBA, where 16 of 30 enjoy a chance at the championship.

What MLB has done here is make their system more like the NFL's, where the top teams are given an advantage, namely less games required to win it all. Assuming each team has a 50% chance of winning a series, the change to the MLB playoff system has simply reduced the chance of the 4th-place finisher winning the pennant from 1/4 to 1/8 and increased the chance of the 5th-place finisher from 0 to 1/8. The three division winners maintain their 25% chance of taking the league title. (In the NFL, the top two seeds have a 25% chance to win their conference championship while the other four teams have a 1/8 chance.)

Despite my initial opposition to the idea, I am satisfied with the solution developed by the braintrust at MLB. It will increase excitement for fans of teams like the Blue Jays, who are suddenly a playoff contender, and at the same time, it rewards the division winners more appropriately. I'll be following this season with more interest as a result.



Monday, March 5, 2012

2012 Prairie Trip Summary

I always like to post a small summary of any big trip I take, more for my own purposes, so please excuse the self-indulgence.

I was on the road for 22 days during which I saw 4 NHL, 7 WHL, 2 Junior A hockey, 5 basketball (NBA, NBDL, NCAA, 2 CIS), and 2 NCAA baseball games, all while driving 3,000 miles.

The best game was Philadelphia's 5-4 OT win in Winnipeg, a game that I almost skipped due to not having a ticket. The moral being always go to the venue, you never know what might happen.

The most enjoyable game was Toronto's OT win in Edmonton, with the game-clinching goal happening right in front of me.

The worst game was Toronto's 5-1 loss in Calgary but I can take solace in that game being part of the 1-9-1 streak that ended Ron Wilson's tenure as the Leafs' head coach.

This was the first extended sports trip I have taken in Canada and it really helped me to reconnect with my roots. I've never spent that much time in the west and I found it very relaxing driving along these empty highways, beautiful vistas stretching as far as the eye can see. Perhaps the most amazing sight was during a night drive from Kindersley to Swift Current, where we took a backroads route, with almost no traffic passing us for nearly two hours. We stopped briefly and turned the car lights off, stepping out to see the Milky Way in all its majesty. The millions of stars are not visible in a city, where the ambient light created by humanity blocks the starlight created by nature.

It was certainly quite different than driving in LA, with thousands of vehicles travelling 75 MPH along 5 lanes of blacktop, weaving in and out with no discernible pattern. No need to tell you which is more enjoyable.

This was a wonderful trip for me, especially the junior hockey games. I felt a connection to each community when I spent time in their arena; each rink brings a unique history that reveals how much hockey is a part of life in Western Canada.

Unfortunately, there's not much other than hockey to watch in the Great White North, at least in terms of being able to find games on a regular basis. College sports there aren't that compelling and there is no real baseball or basketball league that would allow for 7 games in 7 nights. I hope to see all the junior hockey rinks as well as do a CFL tour but after that, I'll be out of options for sports road trips in Canada as I've now seen every NHL rink there.

That is still be a few years away though, in the meantime, I'll be planning plenty of trips to take in the great ballparks of minor league baseball among other sports. This blog is nearly three years old and I'll make an announcement on the anniversary (March 21) about my Quest for 400, so check back then.



Sunday, March 4, 2012

Prairie Pastimes

When I take these extended road trips, I like to visit the occasional tourist attraction to stave off the boredom that can accrue between sporting events. Having traveled extensively throughout North America, it has become increasingly difficult to find something unique or different, that is, a tourist attraction that offers an opportunity to learn or see something new. One history museum is much like the other after you've visited 20 of them, so I generally stay away from those spots similar to what I have seen before.

On the most recent journey, which lasted 3 weeks, I only found four itineraries intriguing enough to check out, one in Calgary, two in Saskatoon, and one in the LA suburbs.

Calgary Tower

At $14 with a coupon, this isn't cheap but it is worth an hour of your time if you are partial to tall buildings. The tower is easy to spot from anywhere in the city, but it is no longer the tallest structure in Calgary. That means that views to the northwest are limited by office buildings, but otherwise you can get some good looks at the mountains to the southwest as well as the Saddledome and stampede area to the south east, at least when the skies are clear.

There is also a small extension with a glass floor on which you can stand and take pictures below you. Acrophobics need not attempt this, but it is fun to watch them try.

Alberta Sports Hall of Fame & Museum
Between Calgary and Edmonton lies the city of Red Deer, and just outside of it you will find the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame & Museum. It is right off the highway, in fact, we stopped in only because of a roadside sign alerting us to its presence.

The HOF actually located in the same building as the tourist info centre, which had plenty of stuff on Saskatchewan as well, making it a useful stop. It costs $5 to enter and is quite interesting, with some interactive games for kids (that adults are encouraged to use) and lots of displays about the history of sports in Alberta. Definitely a good way to split up the 3-hour trek between Alberta's two NHL cities (as well as its two ex-PCL cities, as you can see below).

Diefenbaker Centre

John Diefenbaker was Canada's 13th Prime Minister and the only Conservative to hold that office between 1930 and 1979. Although born in Ontario, he moved to Saskatoon as a teenager and attended the University of Saskatchewan. He agreed to donate his estate to the institution if they constructed a museum to house his papers and other items. The university agreed and the Diefenbaker Centre was opened in 1980, less than a year after he died.

Unfortunately the Centre was closed due to renovations when we were in Saskatoon, but that didn't stop us from walking around the area along the South Saskatchewan River. The grave site of Diefenbaker and his wife Olive are nearby, and the pathways along the river provide for some beautiful views. I hope to return here for some NHL action and will check out the Diefenbaker Centre, which will be reopened by then.

That's the University Bridge below, with downtown across the river.

Western Development Museum

The Western Development Museum (WDM) is a Saskatchewan-wide enterprise with separate attractions in Saskatoon, North Battleford, Moose Jaw, and Yorkton. Each museum is unique and presents a different element of the history of the west. We visited the one in Saskatoon and were amazed by the amount of detail on display. This museum presents a "boomtown" with a main street that has stores and businesses on either side, much like you would have seen a hundred years ago. There were even real live blacksmiths explaining their trade and an old locomotive in which you can sit and survey the floor.

In the back there is a huge room with old farm machinery that boggles the mind in terms of its size and complexity. Nobody else seemed interested in this display but I found it fascinating.

Best of all was the Boomtown Cafe, a restaurant that serves up heaping piles of pancakes or an oversized omelette at a reasonable price. Many locals eat there and it was certainly the best restaurant meal I had on the trip.

The cost for the museum is only $8.50, a bargain to begin with, but on their homepage, there are 2-for-1 coupons which you need to print out (although they accepted my electronic version) which knocks admission down to an incredible $4.25. Truly a fantastic experience that we found rather tiring after 3 hours of walking around, but admission is for two consecutive days so if you are in Saskatoon for a longer period of time, you can split your visit.

Automobile Driving Museum

Not quite on the prairie, but the Automobile Driving Museum is also something worth checking out if you are in LA. Located just a few minutes walk from the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, the museum presents an extensive collection of old cars that is a great spot for road trippers such as myself. I am by no means a car historian but it is fascinating to see the development of the automobile from the early 1900s to the 1980s. These cars are still in working condition and you can be driven in one on a weekend, but I was there midweek so did not have that opportunity. Admission is by donation with $5 the suggested amount, a bargain for those who enjoy old cars.

1947 Chrysler Windsor, $1,861 factory price

1930 Stutz, only 3 of this model were ever made

Superb collection

There were a few other sights I wanted to visit (the Moose Jaw Tunnels and the Winnipeg Mint to name a couple) but a lack of time or poor weather limited my options. Guess I'll be back on my CFL road trip, whenever that happens!



Saturday, March 3, 2012

Loyola Marymount Lions 2 at Cal State Fullerton Titans 6 (NCAA Baseball) - February 29, 2012

It's Leap Day! Is there a better way to celebrate this quadrennial event than watching a baseball game in California before flying back to Japan? I couldn't think of one, so I ventured over to Fullerton to watch the Cal State Fullerton Titans taking on the Lions of Loyola Marymount in a non-conference game.

Goodwin Field

Opened in 1992 as Titan Field, Goodwin Field is celebrating its 20th anniversary this season. In that time, the Titans have amassed an amazing home advantage, winning over 75% of their contests played here. They also have won two national championships during those two decades, adding to the two they had won previously, making them a well-known program in college baseball.

The ballpark is located on the north side of the campus, just off Yorba Linda Boulevard. Parking costs $8 for any long-term lot (i.e. greater than 2 hours) within the campus confines but is not enforced on Friday evenings or weekends, which is when most games are held so this shouldn't be a problem. Lot G is the closest to the stadium.

Tickets vary from $15 for the good box seats down to $8 for general admission. There are ushers but they didn't seem to check for tickets, so if you are there for a less popular game, you can just buy the cheapies and sit where you want. Be aware though that this team does draw well for certain rivalries, but it doesn't matter, there is not a bad seat in the place. There is a screen that covers most of the seating area but section D has a clear view as do the unreserved sections.

The ballpark is park of a larger sports complex and the softball field shares the concourse above first base. I doubt they play games at the same time, but I did see the softball team practicing (above) which was quite interesting. Another sport I have to add to the list.

The Titans do a great job of commemorating their storied past. There is a list of every All-American as well as other national awards that takes up a whole side wall of the press box (above), and on the other side you will see the Wall of Champions which includes the rosters of all four national champs (below) as well as individual plaques for those stars who played here, including Tim Wallach and Mark Kotsay.

Above each section are small banners that list star players who have used those particular numbers, another nice touch.

There is a VIP room as well that is heated but didn't seem to be used by too many fans. You can see it on the right side of the picture below.

Above the batters eye are pennants for each team in the Big West conference, another feature I haven't seen before at this level.

There are lots of concession choices here, including several trucks which offer options that are not usually available at college ballparks. Prices were not cheap though, with pizza slices going for $5. Kettle corn seemed to be a fan favourite with snack bags just $3 and certainly providing far more than a snack.

Unlike other NCAA ballparks, Goodwin Field has local advertising above the fences, perhaps because it was also used by an independent league team, the Orange County Flyers. A charter member of the Golden Baseball League that were managed for a season by the late Gary Carter, the Flyers did not play in 2011 but intend to be part of the North American Baseball League this season.

Overall, Goodwin Field is a great college ballpark, and is definitely worth checking out if you are in LA, as it is less than 30 miles from downtown and will provide you with a chance to appreciate a baseball program that has succeeded over the years and is still relatively unknown outside college baseball circles.

The Game

Loyola Marymount is not a baseball powerhouse coming in at 2-5 while Fullerton was ranked #17 by the NCAA despite a rather unimpressive 4-3 start. The player to watch here is Michael Lorenzen (below), a sophomore who played with Team USA this past summer.

As this was a midweek game, neither team started their top pitchers, with the Lions sending lanky lefty Matt Florer (below) to face Koby Gauna, a freshman making his first college start.

LMU scored in the top of the second on a single, wild pitch, and another single but Fullerton tied it when Lorenzen doubled to lead off the third, advanced on a wild pitch and scored when the catcher threw the ball wildly past third base. That was all for Florer, who was replaced by Kevin Glomb, the first of 5 Lions' relievers on the day.

The game remained tied until the 7th when Scott Harkin led off with a homer for LMU, but again the Titans tied it, this time using 2 balks from LMU's Ramiro Carreon to plate the run.

Things went from bad to worse for LMU in the 8th. A leadoff single and sacrifice bunt were all well and good, but a hit batsman and a walk loaded the bases. Matt Orloff then attempted a squeeze but Lions' hurler Aaron Griffin threw wild to allow the first run to score and sending him to the showers. Then Keegan Dale executed a perfect bunt off Ryan Hawthorne to score another and Lorenzen grounded out to make it 5-2. Another single scored the final run of the night as the Titans used 3 unearned runs in the frame to win 6-2.

As you can tell, this was not a pretty game, with errors, wild pitches, balks, and passed balls all contributing to runs. Not only was the play rather poor, so was the umpiring. In the bottom of the third, Carlos Lopez grounded to short but the throw was offline. The first baseman missed the tag but Lopez missed the base (below). The umpire called safe too early though, when he should have said nothing, causing the Lions' manager to come out for an explanation. Lopez was later picked off second in another questionable call.

Not a wonderful game with all the bad plays and officiating, but that is what makes baseball so interesting. I'm just glad the game didn't go to extras as I needed to get to LAX for my flight home, which I did with plenty of time to spare.


Blue Jay ace Ricky Romero was a member of the 2004 championship team, winning two games in the College World Series. David Cooper, another Blue Jay who is on the bubble this spring is also a former Titan.

Loyola Marymount was the first school to play at Goodwin Field, being swept in a doubleheader on April 18, 1992.

College baseball is still a sport that thrives without the hype. The fans here were a lot of fun and although there were a few LMU supporters, there was some good-natured ribbing. Much like minor league ball, the game is the most important thing and fans don't derive their identity from the success or failure of the team. I'll be trying to add more college ballparks to my list as it is so much more enjoyable than the hype machines that are college football and basketball.

Next Up

I'm back in Japan and taking it easy for the next month. I'll be going to Okinawa for a week near the end of March and will see the two top bj League teams in action there, and I've got tickets to the first MLB game of the season in Tokyo on March 28, so I'll be recapping those. In the meantime, the sports world has seen lots of big news with the expanded MLB playoffs the most interesting. I'll be adding a few commentary posts on these and other news items, so check back often.