Monday, May 26, 2014

Arizona Diamondbacks 2-2 at New York Mets 1-4 - May 25, 2014

This past Friday, the Diamondbacks and Mets were in the fourth inning of their series opener when the skies opened. Fans waited patiently for a couple of hours before the game was suspended and all statistics up to that point were thrown out, ruining scoresheets around the ballpark. The upshot was the game was moved to Sunday as part of a single-admission doubleheader. I decided to attend as it is not every day you can see 18 innings of major league baseball for the price of 9, although on the whole, I would rather have been in Philadelphia. From this day at the ballpark, I have a few thoughts I'd like to share.

Single-Admission Doubleheader

When did this term enter baseball vernacular? When I was a kid, the word doubleheader meant two games for the price of one. At some point, a financial genius and baseball lunkhead realized that they could double their income by scheduling one game in the afternoon and another in the evening, thus taking up the entire day for players, season ticket holders, and stadium employees. Who cares about them though, we can DOUBLE GATE RECEIPTS! Thus the day-night doubleheader was born. These days, there are almost no doubleheaders on the original schedule; and even many rainouts are rescheduled as the dreaded day-night variety.  Only on the rare occasion where a team is not returning to the city and circumstances prevent a day-nighter will you see two games for the price of one. Of course, given how bloody slow these games have become, that might not be a good thing after all.

Games Slower Than Ever

I've been talking about the terrible slowness that pervades MLB these days. Average game time is 3:08 but beyond that is how little happens during that time. Strikeouts are up while hits and runs are down. The stat I like to use is Pitches Per Minute (PPM) which measures the pace of the game, but it is only good for 17 seasons as reliable pitch counts are not available for games before 1998. Still, this season's PPM of 1.563 is nearly 10% slower than the high of 1.711 reached in 2004. For a more historical look, consider Runs Per Hour, which simply measures the number of runs you see per hour of baseball. The lowest figure for RPH in the past 60 years was in 1968, the year before the pitching mound was lowered. RPH that season came in at 2.672 while runs per game were at an all-time low of 6.84. This season, an average game sees 8.32 runs, but RPH is the lowest ever at 2.651! Games are more than 30 minutes longer now so even though you might see more total runs, you are spending relatively more time to see them.

This was true for what should have been a quick doubleheader. With the D-backs flying back home afterwards and both teams already out of the pennant race, I thought we might see some good old-fashioned baseball with pitching and swinging. Nope. The first game was won by Arizona 2-1 and took 3:09. That's less than a run per hour. The second game was won by New York 4-2 and took 3:12. That's less than 2 runs per hour. Overall, 9 runs in 6:21, or 1.42 RPH. Thankfully it was a beautiful day and the fans around me were of a like mind, so we spent most of the time complaining about how baseball is slow and boring. Smart fans, on the other hand, went home after the first game.

Scoring By iPad

I still score most games that I go to, using my customized scorebook. I even track pitches, assists and putouts as well, which keeps me more focused as the games become longer and filled with more interruptions. Recently though, I found an iPad app that allows you to score the game. After tracking Game 1 manually, I decided to try the app to see how it works in a live game. I had practiced a couple of times while watching the Jays on TV, but an NL game is quite different with all the lineup changes and there were plays that the app did not handle that well, though it does track all stats automatically, and allows you to create PDFs of the scoresheet for printing out at home. Ultimately though, I prefer the paper option, where you can easily make corrections. You really don't want to be using your iPad in a rainstorm either.

Anyway, the funny part of this story happened after the game one of the guys sitting behind me said, "You're the problem with baseball these days with that computer shit". Woo-hoo! I thought the problem with baseball was steroids and slow games, when really all we need to do is stop using technology. Problem solved. Interesting that this gentleman sat through two long, boring games and found my attempts to try something different to be the problem.

Close to a No-Hitter

I mentioned that I would rather have been in Philadelphia. That quote is based on a similar one attributed in various forms to W.C. Fields, a native of the city. Many believe it to be his epitaph, but his grave contains only his name and years of birth and death (1880-1946). Anyway, I brought this up because just down the road from Citi Field, Josh Beckett was authoring the first no-hitter of the season. I've yet to see a major-league no-no, and the two I saw in the minors are asterisked (one was 7 innings and 3 pitchers, the other a rain-shortened 5-inning affair). I do hope to see one sometime, but it is quite possible that this will be the closest I will ever come. Update: I have since seen two MLB no-hitters, though both were of the combined variety.



Thursday, May 22, 2014

Oh! Oh! Oh! Ohio!

I've been very quiet lately as I'm putting the finishing touches on a book about my NFL Road Trip last year. I've seen enough games in New York during my time here and can't get too excited about the Mets or Yankees. I've been looking forward to the first weekend of summer for quite a while though, as the Blue Jays will be playing a three-game set in Cincinnati. After checking out the schedule of nearby teams, I realized that the Jays AAA team will be in Columbus just before that, and I could also add games in Cleveland, Akron and Mahoning Valley to make it a full week in the Buckeye State without missing too much of the World Cup.

Without further ado, here is the schedule:
Tue, Jun 17 Angels at Indians 7:05
Wed, Jun 18 Bisons at Clippers 7:05
Thu, Jun 19 Bisons at Clippers 12:05
Fri, Jun 20 Blue Jays at Reds 7:10
Sat, Jun 21 Blue Jays at Reds 4:10
Sun, Jun 22 Blue Jays at Reds 1:10
Mon, Jun 23 Seawolves at Rubber Ducks 7:05
Tue, Jun 24 Muckdogs at Scrappers 7:05

It will be a quick tour with only two new stadiums to add to the venue count (the visit to Columbus will be my 200th ballpark!) but it should be fun to see the Baby Jays and then the big boys for five straight road games. As always, check back for updates.



Sunday, May 11, 2014

Tampa Bay Rowdies 1 at Ottawa Fury FC 1 (NASL) - May 10, 2014

I've often described my hometown of Ottawa as the worst sports city in North America, mainly because of all the teams that have moved away or gone bankrupt. Two CFL franchises have disappeared, while the AAA Lynx only lasted 15 seasons before heading to Lehigh Valley, where fans appreciate affordable entertainment. Even independent baseball failed here, and efforts to move a AA team to the now empty stadium were for naught. For the past couple of years, only the Senators offered professional sports to the masses, but that is finally changing this summer. Most notably, the CFL is making its third foray into the city with the Ottawa RedBlacks taking over a completely renovated Lansdowne Park (now known as TD Place Stadium) starting next month. Less well known to even locals is that the stadium will have another pro tenant, the Ottawa Fury FC, who have begun play in the NASL this season.

With the finishing touches yet to be completed on TD Place though, the Fury are playing the spring season at Keith Harris Stadium at Carleton University (above). They happened to have a game on Saturday evening against the Tampa Bay Rowdies when I was visiting family, so I headed out to Carleton with my friends Sharpy and Sean to add another venue to my list.

Tickets were $27 (unless you got a freebie like Sean), a hefty price to pay for a bench seat at a minor league soccer game but that didn't stop 2,164 fans from showing up. The weather was perfect to be outdoors for a few hours and the teams put together an entertaining first half. After both teams traded early chances, Ottawa was awarded a penalty in the 24th minute when Rowdie defender Frankie Sanfilippo blocked a shot with his hand while in the area. Brazilian Oliver Minatel (who goes by his first name only and was selected as the league's player of the week two weeks prior) took the kick but it was saved by Matt Pickens (below). Pickens played 116 games with the Colorado Rapids in MLS and led them to the MLS Cup in 2010, so the NASL is not just filled with young hopefuls.

Three minutes later, Tampa Bay received their own penalty when Omar Jarun pulled down Rowdies striker Lucky Mkosana. Bulgarian Georgi Hristov (#10 below) took the shot and made no mistake, slotting home past Devala Gorick to give the visitors the 1-0 lead.

Just three minutes after that, the Fury scored off a corner when Tony Donatelli headed home at the far post after Pickens fell down. It appeared that Pickens might have been interfered with by another Ottawa player and he was certainly indignant, screaming at the referee to no avail. With the game tied 1-1 and both teams playing a wide-open attacking style, more goals were expected, but in the end none arrived as the second half was mostly sloppy play. Just five minutes from full time, Fury defender Ramon Soria received the final touch of a perfect give-and-go and found himself alone on Pickens, only to have the keeper make a magnificent diving save to preserve the point.

Sharpy was not impressed with Soria's effort as he had predicted a 2-1 Fury win in our pre-game pool. Sean had forecast 2-1 for the visitors, while I took the 1-1 score to win the pool, enjoying a couple of free beers after the game,at the Lone Star in the Byward Market, a very nice way to end a short visit to Ottawa.



Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Toronto Blue Jays at Philadelphia Phillies - May 5-6, 2014

With Club 122 complete, it is time to take on new challenges. I plan to visit every minor league ballpark that I have yet to see over the next three years, but in the meantime, I have to find other games to keep me busy. One of my goals is to see the Blue Jays and Maple Leafs in every road city.  I've knocked off 22 of the 30 NHL rinks (including Atlanta), but just over half of the 29 MLB ballparks. So the summer of 2014 is a good time to see the Blue Jays on the road as much as possible. I already saw them play in Tampa Bay to start the season, but going forward, I have to concentrate on the National League parks as those games happen only every four or five years. So it was a no-brainer to head to Philadelphia this week to see Toronto in a two-game series, the first of a home-and-home with the Phillies.

Citizens Bank Park is one of the best new stadiums in the country. Well, new is a relative term as the ballpark opened in 2004, but it still looks untouched in some places. Outside you can find statues of Phillies greats such as Steve Carlton (above) and inside, you get plenty of space to walk around. Ashburn Alley is behind center field and includes the Wall of Fame and the starting lineup using gigantic baseball cards. Gates to this area open 2.5 hours before game time so make sure to stop by if it is your first time visiting. The upper deck behind the plate provides a nice view of the city (below) and is often empty enough to find an entire row to yourself. My favourite element though is the standing rails on the lower concourse, which fill up early as they provide great views of the game without having to spend the money to sit in the good seats.

The main problem here is that tickets are not cheap. I arrived for Monday's game quite early and was surprised that the cheapest ticket was $17 for standing room. I knew that I could get in for less than that, but didn't want to wait until close to game time. Fortunately, there was a gentleman with an extra who was trying to give it to a cop, who politely explained that he would not be able to use it as he was on duty. The guy had no idea what to do with an extra ticket, so I approached him and said "I'll take that". He looked at me strangely, perhaps considering whether to ask me for some cash. His friend, eager to get in and realizing that there was not a single other person around looking for a ticket, yelled "Just give it to him!". Yay! A free Blue Jays game! Even better, it was Dollar Dog night, so with two of those and a free soda courtesy of the designated driver program, I saw a major league game for $2. Of course, that includes the antics of the Phillie Phanatic, the best mascot in sports. That's him in green below, harassing the security guys during an inning break.

Although the ticket was for the lower deck beyond third base, it was a crowded section, so I moved upstairs where fans were few and far between. My buddies King and Vinny were there as well, in town as there were no MLB games in New York to keep them occupied, so I joined them. We were treated to a 3-0 Jays win, the team's 5th shutout of the season, all without a complete game. Jose Reyes led off with a home run and the Jays added another run later in the frame when Juan Francisco singled home Melky Cabrera. Josh Thole doubled home Colby Rasmus in the second and that was all the pitching staff needed. J.A. Happ started and went 5 solid innings before giving way to 4 relievers, each of whom pitched a single scoreless inning. Seeing your team shutout an opponent on the road is a rare pleasure and one that I have enjoyed twice this season.

The following night another sports road tripping buddy, Andrew Van Cleve, joined me. I had booked a bus back to New York for 11 pm, so I was hoping that extra innings would be avoided. When the Jays stormed to a 5-0 lead in support of Drew Hutchison, it looked like my wish would be granted. Then the Phillies came to bat in the 6th. After a double and two singles scored a run, Hutchison induced a pop out from Marlon Byrd and struck out Dominic Brown. I relaxed, but after John Mayberry Jr. walked as a pinch hitter, Hutchison made one mistake and Cody Asche hit it out for a game-tying grand slam. Andrew chortled at my misfortune while I pondered my options. There was a bus at 2:50 am for example. I did not want to miss the end of the game.

Sure enough, the next 3 innings were scoreless. Hutchison came back to throw two perfect frames, rewarding the faith of manager John Gibbons, who didn't panic after the bad inning. Then rookie Marcus Stroman (above) was brought in to pitch the ninth, only his second major league appearance. A one-out single by Asche was followed by a wild pitch and ground out to put the winning run on third. Stroman showed poise though and got Ben Revere to ground out to end the threat.

Toronto scored a run in the 10th when Cabrera and Jose Bautista singled to get things underway against Antonio Bastardo. After Edwin Encarnacion popped out, Bastardo unleashed his own wild pitch and when Francisco flew out to Revere, Cabrera raced home. The throw was horribly offline and Cabrera scored easily to make it 6-5. In the bottom half, Stroman remained in to face Carlos Ruiz and induced a weak grounder before being replaced by lefty Aaron Loup. He made both Chase Utley (above) and Ryan Howard look foolish, getting two more weak ground balls as the Jays completed the sweep in 3:06, giving me enough time to make my bus!

A perfect ending and the first Blue Jays series sweep I have seen in my life. Winning sweep that is. I saw them lose all 3 home games to Milwaukee during that catastrophic collapse in 1987 and I still remember that painful ride back to Waterloo, realizing that they were probably going to blow the division against Detroit. Just over 26 years later and I enjoyed the ride back home this time. Sure I don't expect the Jays to win the pennant, but after sweeping the Phils in Toronto as well, things are looking up for this club. I plan to see them in Cincinnati and Milwaukee later this year and hope things go just as well there too.



Saturday, May 3, 2014

Toronto Raptors 83 at Brooklyn Nets 97 - Eastern Conferce Quarterfinal, Game 6 - May 2, 2014

The Brooklyn fans have been anything but supportive of their team through the first five games of the playoff, leading to their own Twitter account to call them out, so it was no surprise to see ticket prices drop to face value on StubHub just an hour before Game 6. Against my better judgement, I purchased a decent seat on impulse and hurried over to the Barclays Center. Having heard about the officiating being biased in Brooklyn's favour and knowing how the NBA gets what they want, I fully expected the Nets to win, but optimism prevailed over cynicism and off I went. I arrived a few minutes before tipoff but due to the venue's insane security rigmarole, did not get seated until 3 minutes had passed and the Raptors were already down 7-4 with 2 fouls. It was obvious immediately that Toronto had not shown up to play, while Brooklyn was dominating inside. The Nets ended the first quarter on a 20-8 run, and when Jonas Valanciunas was whistled for his 3rd foul, a bogus loose ball call just 90 seconds into the second, he was forced to sit. The Nets never looked back. On the other hand, I spent the rest of the evening regretting my decision and might just stop going to the NBA altogether.

Now I am not going to claim that there is some grand conspiracy at NBA headquarters where Adam Silver phones up the referees and tells him who should win. That's because they already know. Check out these numbers: 7-3, 7-5, 4-3, 7-3. This is the not the score to some bizarre tennis match, but the fouls in every quarter, with the Raptors the higher number in all cases. To be fair, the last three were committed in garbage time, but make no mistake, the officiating was one-sided here, even though it didn't need to be! The Raptors were terrible! Before the game, Jason Kidd had the gall to criticize the referees after Game 5, earning himself a $25,000 fine. He got his money's worth.

Is the NBA Fixed?

In a word, no. A fix implies a premeditated conspiracy between several parties. That is simply not possible. But in certain cases, the league benefits from specific outcomes. Previous instances of refs favouring the team that helps television ratings are well documented. There is no other possible explanation for the decisions made in that 2002 game other than official bias for the Lakers to get them to the finals. Nobody in the league wanted Sacramento in the finals. And now nobody in the league wants Toronto in the second round.

I write this less than 24 hours before Game 7 is scheduled to start. There is no chance the Raptors will win that game. The Brooklyn money line is +130 to +145 depending on which sports book you use, and a sure bet. In related news, the league has seen fit to suspend Zach Randolph for a "punch" that will ensure the Thunder move on, and it's no surprise to see five Game 7s to push Donald Sterling from the news.

ESPN hypes the games without criticism, and certainly there have been some amazing finishes such as Damian Lillard's shot with 0.9 seconds left to send Portland on, but in the end, the league is clearly working towards higher ratings through whatever means possible. If you are a Raptors fan, you might as well give up now, the team will never win a championship, there is simply too much money at stake.

Update: Toronto made it close, but lost by a point. In reality though, this game was decided in the second quarter. Toronto's two top scorers, Amir Johnson and Kyle Lowry, combined for 11 fouls (Johnson fouled out) while the Nets top two, Joe Johnson and Marcus Thornton, combined for 0. The only reason Toronto made it close is because the Nets missed some free throws and committed a stupid turnover with 6 seconds left - even the league can't control that.

Update 2: I had no idea that Tim Donaghy had appeared on the Jeff Blair show in advance of the series to say that it would be rigged. I am basing my accusations on what happened in Game 1 and what I saw live in Game 6. The series was handed to the Nets and they almost threw it away.