Saturday, August 31, 2013

Baltimore Orioles 5 at New York Yankees 8 - August 30, 2013

Now that I am living in New York (after the NFL Road Trip at least), you might expect me to attend games in the area as much as possible. In fact, I will probably be avoiding the local teams for the most part. I've been to nearly all of the professional venues here and unless there is a compelling match (i.e. the Maple Leafs or Blue Jays are in town), I'd just as soon stay home. Attending sports ain't cheap and frankly, a lot of the time, the games really aren't that enjoyable when I'm not travelling. For me, it is the road trip that makes a sporting event worth attending; I find that going to the same stadium all the time can become a chore. Yesterday's game at Yankee Stadium is a prime example of that.

The Orioles were in town to open a 3-game set with both teams on the outside of the playoff picture but still harbouring hopes of late-season surge. C.C. Sabathia was on the hill for New York against Miguel Gonzalez for the O's.

After a long day of house-hunting, I took the train to Yankee Stadium. Whereas when I was visiting New York, the subway was cool, it is now just a part of daily life. I arrived at the stadium just as the first pitch was being thrown. I lined up for a ticket at the box office and was told the cheapest option was $50. No thanks. Fortunately, a scalper had a single for $20 and I bought that, happy to enter the stadium in the 2nd inning. I made my way to Section 420B where Gary and the King were sitting in their regular spot. As you can see from the picture below, they have a nice view of the stadium from directly behind home plate.

The first three innings were great, with neither team managing a hit and it looked like a pitchers duel was in order. Yeah, right. The Orioles opened the scoring in the fourth when Chris Davis singled home Manny Machado who had doubled to end C.C.'s attempt at perfection. The Yankees got two back when Alfonso Soriano homered with Robinson Cano on, but Danny Valencia did the same in the fifth to give the Orioles the 3-2 lead. Machado added an RBI single to double the advantage.

In the bottom half though, Gonzalez fell apart, giving up doubles to Curtis Granderson and Mark Reynolds before Ichiro Suzuki, looking completely out of place in a Yankee uniform (above), homered to right field. Gonzalez remained in and gave up a double, single, and a walk before being mercifully removed. Cano greeted reliever T.J. McFarland with a 2-run single and it was suddenly 7-4 Yankees. Those first three frames were a mere memory as the game was now nearing the 2-hour mark.

Each team added a singleton to make the final 8-5. Despite all the scoring, the game took just over 3 hours, which is not bad, particularly compared to those 4-hour marathons I endured back in Japan. Still, it was not a good game, with plenty of bad baserunning and poor defence. Amazingly no errors were given; at one point Adam Jones singled to left field where Soriano booted it, allowing Jones a free pass to second. Should have been a single and an error, but Jones was credited with a double. The King was not happy with that particular decision and who can blame him; official scorers have become far too lenient on the defence.

It was good to catch up with the boys of Royalty Tours again and seeing Ichiro homer was an unexpected bonus. As a Blue Jay fan, though, I cannot do this regularly since I am unable to truly root for the Yankees or give them any of my money. Going to the games will become a chore: I'll have to scour for a ticket on the street and then sit there and be miserable when the Yankees win. So expect me to spend most of my time in New York doing other things and saving money for a few more extended road trips. Next summer I might try to see the remaining 80 or so minor league ballparks I have yet to visit.

For now though, I am preparing for the NFL Road Trip which begins on September 4th. Follow along on Twitter and Facebook, it will be a great four months!



Friday, August 30, 2013

US Open Tennis Championship - August 29, 2013

I'm in New York! We landed on Wednesday morning and after taking a day to get over jet lag, my wife and I headed over to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows (above) to check out the first Thursday of the U.S. Open. Taking the 7 train to Mets-Willets Point, we saw the Citi Field parking lot filling up as the Mets had an afternoon game against the Phillies, but today was about tennis, so we exited the station to the right instead and made our way down the walkway to the will-call window.

We had bought tickets a couple of months back when they went on sale, opting for the day pass with seats at Arthur Ashe Stadium as you should be able to see most of the stars while you are there. This also allows you access to the unreserved seats at Louis Armstrong Stadium and the Grandstand, as well as all outside courts. With matches beginning at 11 am, it turned out to be a great bargain, particularly when compared to the night session which begins at 7 pm and includes only two matches on Arthur Ashe Stadium (panorama shot above) as well as any remaining matches from the day session. You can also get reserved tickets to Armstrong (below) only, but those do not allow you into Ashe, which is where the biggest stars play, so I wouldn't recommend choosing that.

The night before we examined the schedule of play and I was excited to see that there would be five Canadians in action, including mens 10th-seed Milos Raonic and up-and-comer Eugenie Bouchard, who would open play on Armstrong against 8th-seeded Angelique Kerber of Germany. I opted to see this match instead of 4th-seeded Sara Errani taking on fellow Italian Flavia Penneta on Ashe.

Bouchard (above) lost the first set 6-4 but dominated the second 6-2, winning 35 of 59 points, and the Canadian looked to have the momentum entering the final frame. An early break by Kerber quickly quashed that and Bouchard was unable to break back, losing 6-3. There were 27 games played and 13 of those were service breaks as neither woman was able to serve with any real power. Kerber (in red below) ended up with just 98 points to Bouchard's 96, just enough to move into the third round. Don't forget about Bouchard though, she is young and needs to work on her mental game, but I expect her in the top 20 in a year or so.

The match lasted over two hours, so when we finally took our seats in Ashe, Serena Williams (below) was up on her Kazakh opponent, Galina Voskoboeva, 4-2 in the first set. It didn't take the world's number one player much longer to win the match 6-3, 6-0 in just 69 minutes, barely enough time for me to take a picture.

That gave me a bit of time to find some shade and water and wait for Roger Federer (serving below) to take center stage. His opponent was Carlos Berlocq from Argentina, who played well in the first set but still lost 6-3. Both players attempted the between-the-legs shot with their back to the net, although neither succeeded in gaining the point. Federer was clearly the better player and made several impressive shots, belying reports that he is washed up. He won the final two sets in 2 and 1, taking 90 minutes to dispose of Berlocq.

With that Ashe was closed until the night session, so we made our way outside and wandered around to some of the outside courts, such as Court 17 below. Canadian men's doubles pair Daniel Nestor and Vasek Pospisil were on court 11 and well on their way to victory against their opponents when we stopped by.

On the facade of Armstrong is the draw for each section, below you can see the men's and women's singles draws, which are updated in real time. There is also a live scoreboard playing above a large kiosk in the center of the venue, so you can see which matches are ongoing and make your way to the court of your choice.

They also announce who is scheduled to use the five practice courts; Rafael Nadal was supposed to be there at 4:45 so we went to see him. Turned out to be a bit of misinformation there as he was not there, so we headed back to Armstrong to watch another Canadian, Aleksandra Wozniak, take on #2-seed Victoria Azarenka (below). There was a long line to get into the stadium, since there was no more tennis taking place on Ashe. After waiting about 10 minutes, we were allowed in and eventually found some seats near the back corner, allowing us to see Azarenka finish off the match 6-3, 6-1. I should note that I found sitting here to provide the best angle, as when you are sitting along the sides, you are moving your head with each shot and it can be tough to see the close calls.

Anyway, after Azarenka had finished her interview, it was time for women's doubles, featuring the Williams sisters, They were facing Spanish duo Silvia Soler-Espinosa and Carla Suarez Navarro, whose names annoyed the umpire whenever she had to announce them. The Spainiards won the first set in a tiebreak despite being outpointed 46-45. At this time, I heard that Raonic was beginning play over on the grandstand, so we tried to head over there to catch his match. However, only those with reserved Armstrong tickets could access the seating in the grandstand. Fortunately, there was a staircase that led to a large overhang from where you could watch the match.  As you can see in the photo below, it gives you a unique angle as you are right on top of the player.

Raonic was his usual hard-serving self (one of his serves was 140 mph and he had the fastest serve of the first 4 days at 145) and he won the first set easily 6-1. Midway through the second set, we crossed back into Armstrong and watched Venus and Serena complete their comeback, winning the final set 6-3 after taking all 6 games in the middle stanza.

By the time we returned to the Grandstand, Raonic has taken the second set 6-2 and so after over 10 hours on site, we headed home. When we got back, we were able to watch Nadal's easy win on center court on TV. Meanwhile, John Isner and Gael Monfils were doing battle on Armstrong, with Isner taking the match in 4 sets, lasting until nearly midnight. What is interesting is that this was a day session match - it was still going on long after the two night session matches had finished. Raonic had also won his match in straight sets, so it was not all bad news in singles for Canadians.

This turned out to be an excellent cure for jet lag as you are out in the sun for most of the afternoon. If you want a chance to see all the best players, the first Thursday or Friday might provide the best opportunity. Of course, most of the matches are not competitive, but tickets are easier to acquire and it can be a lot of fun checking out the relative unknowns on the outside courts. For me, it was a great day as I saw several Canadians in action. Now that I am living here, I will probably make this an annual trek as it is an experience that is difficult to find elsewhere.



Sunday, August 4, 2013

Chiba Lotte Marines at Orix Buffaloes - August 2/3, 2013

One of the interesting aspects of Japanese baseball is that some teams occasionally play home games in different stadiums, even during the same series. Such was the case this weekend, when the first match of a 3-game set between the Chiba Lotte Marines and the Orix Buffaloes was played at the Kyocera Dome Osaka while the other two took place at Hotto Motto Field Kobe, where Ichiro Suzuki gained fame with the Orix Blue Wave back when the ballpark was known as Kobe Green Stadium.

When the Blue Wave merged with the Kintetsu Buffaloes to become the Orix Buffaloes, the team made the Kyocera Dome their regular home ground, but they still manage to get out to Kobe for a few games a year to keep their old fans happy. Given the experience I had this weekend, they should reverse that decision and play most of their games in the open air, saving the dome for a few games during the rainy season.

Kyocera Dome

Opened in 1997, the Osaka Dome was immediately famous for its spaceship-like appearance. Big, round, silver, and lying in the middle of a semi-industrial area in the city, the Dome is conveniently located if you are staying near the nightlife area of Namba. There are several trains that get you close, with the Dome-mae Chiyozaki Station on the Nagahori Tsurumi-ryokuchi subway line the closest.

Gates only open 1 hour before the game, which gives you time to visit one of the two malls next door, or to watch the cheerleaders performing outside the main gate. You can walk around the entire facility but there is not much to see.

Tickets here vary considerably in price, with the most expensive being the field seats at 8,000 yen. I recommend the B seats at 2,700 yen, which still leave you close to the action. With a capacity of 50,000 and crowds around 20,000 for the Buffaloes games, you will have space to yourself regardless of where you choose to sit.

Food here is not that good and you might be better off bringing something from outside. As the Orix team is originally from Kobe, which is over an hour away, there are not as many fans as one would expect in such a large city as Osaka. In fact, the visiting Chiba fans were out in greater numbers. With the cavernous layout, this is probably Japan's quietest ballpark.

The roof is quite interesting though, looking like a huge speaker. This might be the highlight of the entire stadium!

Overall, the Kyocera Dome is perhaps the worst place to experience Japanese baseball for a newcomer to the game. It is just too big and there are not enough transplanted fans to make this a true  home stadium. The location is good and the lack of fans does make it easy to get around, but those are about the only positive things I can say. It is really the opposite of their other home ground in Kobe.

Hotto Motto Field Kobe

Located about 20 minutes from downtown on the Seishin-Yamate subway line, this ballpark has had four different sponsors, with Hotto Motto, a take-out bento restaurant, the most recent. This field is set up like an American ballpark with a grass infield and basepaths.

Seats here are a bit cheaper than in Osaka, with the best bet being the B seats at 2,500 yen. There is a small upper deck here that tapers towards the end, much like Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City. If you do sit upstairs, avoid the first few rows as there is a fence that blocks the view. Note that you can save a bit of money buying the tickets in advance, which I recommend as the walk up that day was surprisingly long.

The bullpens here are visible from the stands (most Japanese bullpens are hidden from view) and you can get a unique view from directly above.

There is a restaurant on the 4th floor but it was full when I went to check it out. This is where the 1996 Japan Series pennant won by Orix hangs as well.

The concourse is narrow and filled with arches which makes things even tighter when a full crowd is on hand. The picture above is from the upper deck, which is obviously not as busy. Many food stands are outside the stadium proper though, which alleviates the crush somewhat. I tried a couple of snacks and wasn't impressed. There was one Okinawa-themed stand selling Orion Beer and Blue Seal ice cream, two staples of the island culture.

The atmosphere here is among the best in Japanese baseball. The fans are more vociferous than in Osaka and there are more of them as well. Once the sun sets behind the first base grandstand and the air cools slightly, it is a very relaxing place to spend a summer's evening. Unfortunately, the team only plays a few games per year here, so you'll have to check the schedule before booking your ticket to Japan.

The Games

The first game was a fairly pedestrian affair, with the Buffaloes taking an early lead on a home run from Yoshio Itoi (#7 above). Dai-Ho Lee added a monster shot in the fourth, and the two of them opened the sixth with back-to-back singles, eventually coming around to score to make it 4-1. Another run in the seventh seem to salt the game away, but Lotte pinch-hitter Kazuya Fukuura tripled home two runs in the top of the ninth to bring the tying run to the plate. Closer Yoshihisa Hirano managed to get the next two hitters out though, and Orix escaped with a 5-3 win.

I was surprised to see ex-Yankee Kei Igawa (below) starting for Orix in the second game out in Kobe. He came back to Japan last year after a tough six years in America and struggled, going 2-7 with a 4.65 ERA. This season saw him at 3 wins and 2 losses but he was not sharp on this night, giving up 3 runs in the second and 2 more in the fifth as he departed behind 5-2.

Amazingly, he lasted longer than the Lotte starter, Hiroki Ueno, who was pulled after 3.2 innings despite giving up only a 2-run homer. When Aarom Baldiris (below) crushed a ball to the warning track in center field, the manager had seen enough and pulled Ueno. His bullpen did the job though, limiting the Buffaloes to just two more runs the rest of the way as they won 7-4.

The star was lead-off man Takashi Ogino (below), who had two hits, two walks, and two RBIs on the night.

The two games took 3:22 and 3:25 respectively. We actually left the Kobe game early as we had to get back to Osaka and it was dragging on and on. I really can't understand why these relatively uneventful games take so much longer than they used to, but as far as I am concerned, fans are being done a disservice. Well, for me I doubt I will attend another NPB game, so at least I'll stop yapping about this.


The Orix designated hitter was Dai-Ho Lee, referred to as Lee DH in Japanese. In other words, DH Lee DH!  He's had a notable career, winning the triple crown in South Korea in 2006, Olympic gold in 2008, and hitting home runs in 9 consecutive games in 2009. He is in his 2nd year in the NPB and hit a monster homer in Friday's game.

My friend Mike came down from Tokyo for these two games and spotted a jersey giveaway for anyone who had bought a ticket in advance. Thankfully we had, so we each grabbed a Buffaloes practice jersey. On Thursday at Koshien, I had received a free Tigers jersey, so I suddenly have two NPB shirts, something I never bought in all my time in Japan.

Next Up

I'm disappearing to the Maldives for 8 days before returning to close out life in Singapore. I'll then be in New York for a week to get set up there before heading off to Denver to begin the NFL Stadium Journey. Things will be hectic, so check back often for updates and let me know if you want to meet up at one of the 32 games I will be seeing.



Friday, August 2, 2013

Chunichi Dragons 6 at Hanshin Tigers 4 - August 1, 2013

In 2011, I reviewed the six Tokyo-area ballparks for Stadium Journey as they began covering international venues. The intention was to review all 12 NPB stadiums, but circumstances were not in my favour that year. In 2012, I moved to Singapore in May, but managed to get Sapporo, Sendai, Nagoya, and Fukuoka taken care of during the first month of the season. That left only the two stadiums in Osaka: venerable Koshien, which is home to the Hanshin Tigers and the Kyocera Dome, where the Orix Buffaloes play. There is a third stadium in the area, Kobe Green Stadium, that the Buffaloes use on occasion and I wanted to see all three on the same weekend. Naturally, there are few occasions when all three are in use over a three-day period, but the first week of August happened to be one. I booked my flights and hotels months in advance as I could not afford to let this opportunity slip away, and after an overnight flight from Singapore, I found myself in Nishinomiya city, where Koshien is based.

Koshien Stadium

Koshien is Japan's most famous stadium - not because the Tigers play here, but because it hosts two high school baseball tournaments every year. Both tournaments are known simply as Koshien and it is every Japanese boy's dream to play a game at the stadium. The spring invitational tournament takes place in late March and early April, just as the NPB season kicks off, while the summer competition, which features a team from each prefecture, is played through the middle two weeks in August. The high school games take priority, so the Tigers have to play on the road during the tournaments (although some home games are scheduled for the Osaka Dome). Can you imagine the Red Sox vacating Fenway for two weeks in August just so some high schoolers can play?

Opened in 1924, Koshien is the oldest ballpark in the NPB, beating Jingu Stadium by two years. By the 2000s though, it was in need of an overhaul. The last game I saw there around 2006 was painful since the seats were so cramped, having been designed for the average Japanese man in 1924. Thankfully, the powers that be recognized this and instituted a comprehensive renovation program between 2007 and 2010 that completely reshaped the inside of the park while leaving its iconic ivy and arches untouched. Capacity dropped from 53,000 in 2003 to 47,757 and the new seats were slightly bigger and more comfortable. This change vaulted Koshien to the top of my NPB stadium rankings, since the fans and the atmosphere were already the best in the country.

Koshien is easy to get to - the Hanshin (yes, the owner of the Tigers also owns a major railway) main line goes straight from Umeda station, which is right in the center of the city. Avoid the local train and take an express instead, the Koshien stop is just 12 minutes away. You can usually spot Tigers fans in their distinctive yellow and black paraphernalia and following them to the train is a good bet. When you get there, make sure to buy your return ticket as that can be very crowded after the game.

You might have a bit of trouble finding the stadium at first, because it is blocked by two highways that pass right in front of it. Only those distinctive arches are visible as you can see in the photo above. Once you walk under the overpasses though, you will see this beautiful ballpark.

Take the time to walk around and see what is on offer. You will of course notice the ivy, inspired by Wrigley Field. There are some small concession stands but avoid those as the food inside is an experience in itself. Around the back is the Koshien museum which costs 500 yen and provides a detailed history of the park, with much of the focus on the high school tournaments rather than the Tigers. There are numerous plaques such as the one below commemorating a Tigers championship.

There is also a concrete pillar marking 90 years of the summer and 80 years of the spring tournament.

There are just three types of seats available to the general public. The first are those located in the infield, known as Ivy Seats and costing 4,000 yen. These seats come with drink holders and seat backs and are a better option considering the average Japanese baseball game takes well over 3 hours. I was fortunate to get a seat in row 23 just past third base, which was high enough to avoid the fencing and give me a clear view of home plate.

The second group of seats is the Alps seats, so named for the steep incline. At 2,500 yen they are cheaper but the seats have no back and you are down in the corners. The picture below is taken from the Alps seats down the left field line.

Finally there are the outfield seats, which are 1,900 yen. The experience of sitting in the outfield cannot be described, you will be surrounded by Tigers fans cheering all game long. I prefer the relative comfort of the Ivy Seats which are closer to the action, but if you want a unique experience, try sitting in the outfield instead.

I did find some special box seats that seemed to be a good set up for four friends with a small table to put your food on but they were at the top of the seating area and a bit far away.

After entering the stadium, you will notice the concourses are rather narrow, but this didn't prove problematic because there are three levels and fans are guided to the best level for their seat.

Along each concourse are dozens of concessions and this was the biggest surprise for me. Not the number of concessions itself, but the variety and quality. In general, eating options at Japanese ballparks are much more diverse than what you get back home, and healthier as well, but often the food is not the greatest. Not so at Koshien. I started with a kushiage shumai - that's four Chinese dumplings fried and put on a skewer. With a touch of mustard, it was fantastic and a bargain at just 300 yen. I then had a large mango kakigori, which is shaved ice covered with mango juice and even a few pieces of the fruit. Perfect for such a hot and humid day and took me nearly half an hour to finish, well worth the 400 yen. My main meal was a beef and kimchi (spiced cabbage) combo with a cold draft beer that was just 1,000 yen and was surprisingly tasty. I usually don't write much about the food at ballparks, but recommend that you come hungry when you visit Koshien.

At your seat, you can quietly take in the ambiance of this stadium. The all-dirt infield and grass outfield are instantly recognizable for any Japanese baseball fan and the once colourful seats now are all Kelly green, making the park seem more professional than it used to. You can walk around the Alps and Ivy concourses without a problem but you cannot get to the outfield from there for vice versa. As well, you can only enter the seating area through the proper aisle shown on your ticket. My aisle was 3-L, which meant the 3rd floor, aisle L. It's not that hard to figure out.

As game time nears, fans begin to pour in so by 6:00 the stadium is full of 40,000 rabid Tigers supporters and a smattering of visiting team fans, relegated to a small section high in left field. Though on this night, it was they who would have the last laugh.

The Game

Starting for Chunichi was Masahiro Yamamoto (above), who turns 48 next week. His first game was in 1986, the same year as Jamie Moyer. Yamamoto has spent his entire 27-year career with the Dragons and is still bringing it with a 4-2 record and a 3.72 ERA. On this night though, he struggled somewhat, giving up 3 runs in 4 laborious innings. His mound opponent was Akira Iwamoto, a 2nd-year righty making his first appearance of the season. Iwamoto was slightly better, giving up just 2 runs in his 4 innings. The Central League allows pitchers to hit, and both managed to bunt into a double play in their only plate appearance of the night.

With the Tigers still up 3-2 in the 6th, manager Yutaka Wada brought in Ken Nishimura to replace Kazuya Tsutsui who had retired all four batters he had faced. The crowd was not happy with the move and they were right to be upset- Nishimura gave up a single and two walks (including one to former Padres prospect Matt Clark, pictured above) before being sent to the showers. In came Kosuke Kato who promptly gave up a grand slam to Shuhei Takahashi (below), who drove the ball deep over the center field fence to silence the home fans.

Although Hanshin got one back in the bottom of the 6th, the Chunichi bullpen of setup man Warner Madrigal (briefly with the Texas Rangers in 2008-09) and closer Hitoki Iwase shut the door for the 6-4 win, with Iwase getting his 23rd save.


The Wave is not allowed at Koshien. I hope this is a sign of things to come around the world.

The Dragons catcher was Motonobu Tanishige, no spring chicken at 43 himself. That means their battery was a combined 90 years old! I would guess that is some sort of record but have no way of confirming it.

If you used to read this blog while I lived in Japan, you will remember how I used to carp on about the length of Japanese baseball games, and this one was no different, lasting 3 hours and 50 minutes! The NPB has failed to reduce the average time over the past 5 years and in fact, the length of a typical game here has increased to 3:16. Given how quick high school, college, and industrial ballgames are here, I can't figure out why the pros take so long to get things done. Many fans have to leave by 9 pm in order to get their trains home and the league should really make a serious effort to speed things up.

Next Up

Heading to the Osaka Dome tonight for the Orix Buffaloes and Chiba Lotte Marines. The same two teams play tomorrow at Kobe's Green Stadium and I will see that one as well. Check back Monday for a recap of both games.