Sunday, June 29, 2014

The EPL Road Trip

With the World Cup in full swing, the release of the English Premier League fixture list for 2014-15 may have been overlooked by more than a few soccer fans. The schedule was issued on June 18, with the first matches taking place on August 16, just a month after the World Cup ends. Soccer players really get no rest; in between there is the International Champions Cup which features eight European clubs, including Liverpool and the two Manchester teams, playing 13 games in 13 venues across North America.

If you read this blog regularly, you know that I like to post road trip plans here, but I have never done one for the EPL before. One major problem is that the dates of fixtures change as the Champions League, Europa League, and Capital One Cup get started and TV broadcasters move the more interesting games to Sundays and Mondays. As of this writing in late June, almost all fixtures are scheduled for Saturday at 3 pm. With 20 clubs, you would need to travel all the way to December 28th to see a match in each stadium, but once the schedule gets rearranged, this should come down to 10-12 weeks. The term "road trip" is also a bit of a misnomer; with England being relatively small, you don't have to be on the road for this sort of trip as weekend jaunts will do just fine.

Update: with fixtures being moved around for TV, the trip gets that much shorter. I've crossed out games that are no longer necessary and replaced them with ones that have been moved to an open date, signified with an asterisk. You can now see all 20 EPL venues in 10 weeks. Following European soccer tradition, home teams are listed first.

Aug 16 Man United vs Swansea (Old Trafford)*
Aug 17 Newcastle vs Man City (St. James' Park)*
Aug 18 Burnley vs Chelsea (Turf Moor) - moved from Aug 16
Aug 23 Crystal Palace vs West Ham (Selhurst Park)*
Aug 24 Sunderland vs Man United (Stadium of Light)*
Aug 25 Man City vs Liverpool (Etihad Stadium) - moved from Aug 23
Aug 30 Swansea vs West Brom (Liberty Stadium)
Aug 31 Aston Villa vs Hull (Villa Park) - moved from Aug 30
Sep 13 Liverpool vs Aston Villa (Anfield)*
Sep 15 Hull vs West Ham (The KC Stadium) - moved from Sep 13
Sep 20 QPR vs Stoke (Loftus Road Stadium)
Sep 20 West Ham vs Liverpool (Boleyn Ground)*
Sep 21 Everton vs Crystal Palace (Goodison Park)*
Sep 27 Arsenal vs Spurs (Emirates Stadium)
Sep 28 West Brom vs Burnley (The Hawthorns)*
Sep 29 Stoke vs Newcastle (Britannia Stadium)*
Oct  4 Leicester vs Burnley (King Power Stadium)
Oct  5 Chelsea vs Arsenal (Stamford Bridge)*
Oct 18 Southampton vs Sunderland (St. Mary's Stadium)
Oct 25 Spurs vs Newcastle (White Hart Lane)
Nov  1 Everton vs Swansea (Goodison Park)
Nov  8 West Ham vs Aston Villa (Boleyn Ground)
Nov 22 Chelsea vs West Brom (Stamford Bridge)
Nov 29 Swansea vs Crystal Palace (Liberty Stadium)
Dec  2 West Brom vs West Ham (The Hawthorns)
Dec  3 Sunderland vs Man City (Stadium of Light)
Dec  6 Stoke vs Arsenal (Britannia Stadium)
Dec 13 Man United vs Liverpool (Old Trafford)
Dec 20 Liverpool vs Arsenal (Anfield)
Dec 26 Crystal Palace vs Southampton (Selhurst Park)
Dec 28 Newcastle vs Everton (St. James' Park)

The original trip lasted two more months. Keep that in mind if you are ever planning an EPL road trip, wait until the TV schedule is announced before booking any tickets.



Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Erie SeaWolves 1 at Akron RubberDucks 7 (Eastern League) - June 23, 2014

With the weekend in Cincinnati over, it was time to return to Cleveland. I had two days before my flight back to New York, and needed to find a couple of games in the area with the Indians out of town. Both the Akron RubberDucks of the Eastern League and the Mahoning Valley Scrappers of the NY-Penn League are close enough, and the schedule worked out, with Akron home both nights while the Scrappers opened a series on Tuesday.

On Monday, I drove into Akron a few hours before game time, parking downtown and finding a local establishment across from Canal Park to watch the late World Cup games. When those ended with Brazil and Mexico through to the next round, I crossed the street to the stadium, where I purchased a $9 ticket to sit in the second row behind the dugout as the RubberDucks got ready to host the Erie SeaWolves. AA ball is perhaps the best value out there, often with more true prospects than AAA, and Akron is no different, with two of the Indians top 5 prospects in Francisco Lindor (#1 in the system and #9 overall) and Tyler Naquin (#4). Erie is the affiliate of Detroit and boasts #2 Tiger prospect Devon Travis.

This was not my first trip to Canal Park; I had visited here in 2008 when the team was still known as the Aeros, but left the game early due to a sudden illness with the visiting team up 9-3. Well, Akron came back to win 11-10 in ten innings in a game that lasted 4:17, so my visit was invalidated in terms of counting the venue. I wanted to make sure I didn't leave early this time, and of course, as soon as I walked in, the tarp was put on the field. Shortly thereafter the rains opened up, but the crowd was told that it would eventually clear up.

Which it did. Eventually. First pitch was at 9:36, about 2 1/2 hours after it was scheduled.  Fortunately, the RubberDucks rebranded during the offseason, going for the anthropomorphic moniker that appeals to children and allows for more interesting promotions, including allowing rubber duckies to swim on the tarp (below), playing the Rubber Ducky song during the long delay, and relying on puns such as Quakron. The Rubber part of the name is no accident as Akron is known as the birthplace of tire and rubber companies such as Goodyear and Firestone. Brilliantly done although the team did receive a lot of national ridicule when the name was first announced. It works well though and attendance has grown after stagnating under previous ownership. The thoughtfulness towards fans was displayed during the rain delay as Game 1 of the College World Series game was shown on the scoreboard for a while, and other promotions were held on the concourse and field to keep fans entertained.

When the game got underway, both pitchers showed no ill effects from the delay, until the bottom of the third. After Jake Lowery (4th round, 2011) doubled to lead off, starter Tommy Collier (22nd, 2011) walked Jordan Smith (9th, 2011). A balk moved them to second and third, and then Naquin (15th overall, 2012) singled home Lowery and Lindor (NDFA, 2006) followed with another single to make it 2-0. Joe Wendle (6th, 2012) walked and the Bryan LaHair, who was an MLB all-star with the Cubs in 2012 and spent 2013 with Fukuoka in Japan, cleared the bases with a double (below). LaHair is struggling to get back to the majors, having been sent down from Columbus after just 10 games.

Lindor (below, having lost his bat) added a monster solo home run in the fifth to make it 6-0, more than enough for Joseph Colon (12th, 2009) who gave up just one run through seven innings as Akron cruised to a 7-1 win. The game finished at 12:15 just as the rains returned, making for a wet walk back to the car.


It was Doppelgänger night and each RubberDuck was paired with a celebrity lookalike on the scoreboard. Lindor resembles Barack Obama.

Tuesday had rain in the forecast, so I skipped Mahoning Valley, which was about 40 miles away, and returned to Akron, where I watched Japan lose to Colombia and Greece advance over Cote d'Ivoire at the same bar. When those games ended at 6, the sun was shining, so I bought a $5 GA ticket to sit in section 1/2 (below), but they announced just before 7 that a front was moving in and by 8:15, the game was postponed. So if you need a free ticket to a game in Akron this season, just let me know. The game in Mahoning Valley was also postponed.

The trip wasn't entirely in vain as I did briefly see the Greater Akron Baseball Hall of Fame which has a separate entrance next to one of the main gates. It is still being put together and would take only a few minutes to check out, but it is nice to see another baseball attraction being added to a top minor league park in a city that is known mostly for basketball these days.



Monday, June 23, 2014

Toronto Blue Jays at Cincinnati Reds - June 20-22, 2014

My last visit to Cincinnati for baseball was in 2003, when Great American Ballpark opened. For those who think the town is bragging about their stadium, the name is due to corporate sponsor Great American Insurance, although the ballpark is pretty nice too. The area around it, which was still undergoing renovations a decade ago, has developed into one of the prime downtown stadium destinations, with Paul Brown Stadium just a few blocks away (below).

My friend Sharpy joined for the weekend and we arrived on Friday morning, checking into our hotel in Newport, Kentucky. Whenever I'm in Cincinnati, I stay south of the river as Kentucky is usually a bit cheaper and you can walk across one of the bridges to the stadiums. Newport is also home to a number of bars, including Brothers Bar and Grill on the Levee, a great spot for watching the World Cup.

After checking out the early game there (where Costa Rica upset Italy 1-0) we headed over the river to GABP and watched France dismantle Switzerland at the Holy Grail, a bar just across the street from the ballpark. There were many other Blue Jay fans partying here, part of a large contingent down for this rare interleague matchup, only the third time that Toronto has played in Cincinnati.

As gates opened, we headed over to have our StubHub tickets printed, only to find out that there is no need for that here, they can scan you in via the ticket on our phone. Unfortunately, this leaves you without a collectible stub, but such is life these days. If you are lucky, you can get one from a fan who doesn't collect them or find one on the ground, but if not, you'll have to print out the StubHub ticket later.

Before entering, you should check out the monument in front of the main entrance that highlights Crosley Park's famous left-field terrace, where bronze statues of Crosley-era stars Joe Nuxhall, Ernie Lombardi, Ted Kluszewski, and Frank Robinson are playing an imaginary ballgame. The Reds Hall of Fame and Museum is here as well, and costs $10 to visit. It is the largest team HOF in the nation, not surprising given the history of this franchise.

The Great American Ballpark is quite impressive despite a relatively small capacity of 42,319. It took well over an hour to walk around the lower and upper concourses taking everything in. There are a number of features here, including the Power Stacks (right on the photo below), two smokestacks in right center field that spew flames and launch fireworks when something good happens to the Reds. The seven baseball bats featured on both smokestacks symbolize Pete Rose's 14, which cannot be displayed in numerical format due to Major League Baseball restrictions. There are many other touches scattered around, so take your time and try to find everything.

The seats in the upper deck behind the plate offer views of the river and Newport and are a good spot to see the game as well. There are a number of standing spots around the ballpark which we explored during the game.

One thing to note is that the franchise says it was established in 1869; this is not quite true. Pro ball did begin here in that year, but the Cincinnati Red Stockings were dissolved in 1870, while the Reds did not begin play until 1882. It is a small distinction but one worth understanding.

Overall, GABP is deserving of its name. Friendly staff who don't check tickets even low down, some cheap food options including $1 hot dogs and sodas, and nods to local culture as well as the franchise's past greats make a visit here very enjoyable. It helps when your team wins a historic game.

The Games

The Friday night matchup saw spot starter Liam Hendriks, called up from Buffalo to replace R.A. Dickey, who had his start pushed to Sunday due to a sore groin. Hendriks had pitched well in a previous appearance with the Jays, but that was not the case this time, as he was pummelled for 6 runs in 1.2 innings. Todd Redmond came in and gave up another couple of runs and it was 8-0 Reds after two. Edwin Encarnacion mashed a 3-run bomb in the third to give the Jays some hope, but the Reds added another on an Encarnacion throwing error in the fifth. So with 12 outs left, the Jays were down 9-3.

Sharpy and I began to tour the ballpark around now, stopping behind first base as the Jays added a couple in the 6th including a bases-loaded walk to Jose Bautista. In the 7th we moved to beyond center field, and watched Brett Lawrie and pinch hitter Juan Francisco hit homers that brought the Jays to within a run. Sensing that our wanderings were good luck, we continued, standing behind home plate for the 8th, in which Dioner Navarro doubled home Encarnacion to tie the game!

In the ninth, we moved down to the seats behind the Jays dugout and watched as Erik Kratz doubled off Aroldis Champman (above) to score Colby Rasmus and give the Jays the incredibly surprising lead.

Melky Cabrera singled home Kratz and a few batters later, Encarnacion hit his second 3-run shot of the evening to make it 14-9. Casey Janssen retired all 3 hitters he faced, including Joey Votto (above) to preserve the miracle comeback, the best Jays game I have seen on the road ever.

Seeing your team on the road is tough, as they generally win less than half their games, so when something like this happens, it makes it all worthwhile. This was the second largest comeback in franchise history (they beat Boston in extra innings in 1989 after falling behind 10-0) and a great way to start the trip.

Sadly, the next two days were to be the opposite. Through StubHub, we got good seats for both games, but the investment did not pay off, although I got some good shots such as the one of Billy Hamilton below.

J.A. Happ pitched Saturday, when the team absolutely needed a gutsy performance, but he walked four in the first frame and ended up leaving after 4 innings, with the team down 8-0 yet again. There would be no comeback this time though, Mike Leake threw 8 strong innings for the Reds who won 11-1.

On Sunday, the Reds wore their camouflage uniforms and had Johnny Cueto, the league's ERA leader (above), starting against Dickey (below).

It was stifling hot which made what should have been a great day into one that ended up being rather forgettable. A first-inning dropped throw by Encarnacion lead to an unearned run, and although Toronto scored a couple of their own when the Reds made two errors in the third, Dickey was unable to hold the slim lead, with a 2-run homer by Todd Frazier giving the Reds a 4-2 lead. Encarnacion added a solo shot in the 8th to make it close, by Chapman struck out all three Jays in the ninth, including woefully overmatched Masanori Kawasaki (below) to end things and the Reds recovered for their Friday collapse to take two of three and send us home depressed.


During Friday's game, Sharpy and I had the pleasure of meeting Tim Parks, founder of the MLB Ballpark Pass-Port program. Yes, his name is Parks, perfect for this business. The program offers two books, one that includes information on every MLB Ballpark and is perfect for the road tripper who intends to see all 30. The program is licensed by MLB and when you visit each stadium, you can stop by guest services and stamp your book with an official stamp much like a real passport. Smaller books allow you to track 25 games regardless of stadium and are $17.95, while the larger books are $59.95 on his website. A minor league version is also available although some clubs have yet to sign up for the program.

Saturday saw Ken Griffey Jr. bobbleheads given away to the first 25,000 fans. The bobblehead commemorates The Kid's 500th home run. Some fans of the sold out crowd did not receive one, coming too late, but that didn't stop them from using devious methods to acquire a couple. In front of us sat a family of four, with two young children. Around the third inning, they suddenly got up and left, a curious act. A few minutes later, their seat neighbours returned from a trip to the concession stand and asked us if we had see their bobbleheads. Nope, but it soon became clear that the family had seen the giveaway items lying under the chairs adjacent and used the opportunity to pick up a couple of free birthday presents for their kids. Amazing what people will stoop to for something with absolutely no intrinsic value, which can be bought on eBay for $20.

My Blue Jays road record is 21-20, counting only the series where I first visit the venue.



Friday, June 20, 2014

Buffalo Bisons 5 at Columbus Clippers 3 (International League) - June 18-19, 2014

The Buffalo Bisons became Toronto's AAA affiliate in 2013, replacing the Las Vegas 51s who had held the honour for four seasons. This is a dream partnership for both clubs. With the Bisons stadium just 100 miles away from Skydome, player movement is much easier for Toronto, while fans in southwestern Ontario are more likely to visit Buffalo to see the Baby Jays than the Baby Mets. Last year I was still in Singapore and unable to get to any games during the season, so I wanted to make sure I caught a couple this year. Fortunately, the IL's schedule maker sent Buffalo to Columbus for a four-game series right before the Jays were to visit Cincinnati on the weekend. I missed the first two games (won by Columbus) but made it for the last two, although in the end, I only saw one of them. And that took two days.

After driving down from Cleveland on Wednesday, I made my way over to Huntington Park, the home of the Clippers since 2009. It has been lauded as one of the best minor league stadiums but I didn't get much chance to check it out, arriving just a few minutes before first pitch, having watched the first half of Croatia vs. Cameroon. I bought a ticket for $15 in the last couple of rows along 3rd base, just under the overhang. Turned out to be a lucky break, as storm clouds soon moved in.

The Bisons started the game with three straight hits, including a double by Kevin Pillar (below), yet no runs. That is because leadoff man Darin Mastroianni was hit by a batted ball off the bat of Adron Chambers. I did not know that was scored a single for the batter, but it is. Sadly, Chambers and Pillar were stranded.

Columbus scored two in their half of the first, but in the second inning, the rain appeared. They tried to play through it, but it eventually became too heavy, causing a short delay. I was lucky to be covered by the overhang while other fans scrambled to drier locations. The skies quickly cleared but it took the grounds crew some time to get the infield back in playing shape (below). Turned out to be a waste of time.

With Columbus up 3-1 in the top of the fourth and the rain starting to fall again, the head of the grounds crew came out and showed the umpire his cell phone. It wasn't pictures of his kids, but the weather forecast, and it didn't look good. The umpire stopped play right then and the tarp was unrolled again, just in time as a torrential rainstorm hit the ballpark a few minutes later.

The game was postponed and would be resumed Thursday as part of a doubleheader, but they didn't announce it right away, allowing fans to stay dry and safe with lightning in the area as well. When the call was finally made, the rain had stopped, and as you can see below, the red sunset below boded well for Thursday's afternoon games.

The next morning I headed back to the park for the noon start. The weather was humid and cloudy, but no rain was in the forecast. I arrived early and was able to exchange my ticket from the previous evening but amazingly there were no seats left, only standing room. Fortunately, the park has rails along the concourse where you can rest a drink and your scorebook, so I didn't mind this option at all. I took a spot at first base with a nice view of the downtown skyline in the distance. To the left in the photo below is the AEP Power Pavilion, which includes an open air rooftop restaurant with one section of bleachers reminiscent of Wrigley Field.

I also had time to check out the entire park and have to agree with the general assessment; it is one of the best I have ever seen. Columbus has a long baseball history, and it is proudly displayed throughout the ballpark. One bit of trivia I was surprised to discover is that the Clippers actually played three seasons in my hometown of Ottawa from 1952-54 before relocating to Columbus as the Jets, where they played until 1970. The franchise returned in 1977 when they were renamed the Clippers and remains there nearly 40 years later. Another interesting display is called The Speed of the Game and although it is clearly sponsored by Nationwide, it does give you some interesting tidbits on how fast the game is actually played.

But the most exciting display of all has little to do with baseball. Throughout the concourse, you can see banners like the one below, which extol the ballpark and team's success since it opened. Look at #1 below - they quote Stadium Journey magazine, which ranked them #29 in North America this year. When I told other fans that I worked for Stadium Journey, they actually knew what I was talking about! I found this display to be very gratifying given how much effort has been put into the entire Stadium Journey project. Rather than go through all the amenities here, I'll encourage you to read the review on Stadium Journey.

Anyway, there was a game to complete. It resumed with two new pitchers, but the same lineups otherwise. Buffalo had men on first and third with two out but Ryan Goins struck out on three pitches to end that threat. Kyle Drabek (below) took over for Buffalo and was pretty good, tossing five scoreless innings and giving up just one hit. Jared Goedert, a former Clipper, hit a 3-run homer in the sixth and Mastroianni added a solo shot in the 8th and the Bisons completed the comeback with a 5-3 win. Yay!

After a 30-minute break, the teams came out to play a seven-inning game. Top prospect Aaron Sanchez was supposed to start for Buffalo but he was pushed to Friday and career minor leaguer Austin Bibens-Dirkx took the bump for the Bisons, with T.J. House (below) doing the same for Columbus. House started five games for the Indians earlier this season, but had been sent down for more seasoning.

Buffalo was quickly set down in the first, including Goins grounding out (below). I do like how the teams change uniforms for the second game of the doubleheader, it makes it easier to remember which pictures are from which game.

In the bottom of the inning, Carlos Moncrief hit a 3-run homer to give the Clippers a 4-0 lead. At this point, I decided to make my way to the Hall of Fame Bar, on the second floor of the Power Pavilion. The place was packed with several groups enjoying a half-day off work and most ignoring the game.  The bar has a few TVs and although most were tuned to the game broadcast, there were a few showing the World Cup match between England and Uruguay, which I (stupidly) wanted to watch. So I kept one eye on the telly and one eye on the scoreboard and while England suffered defeat at the feet and head of Luis Suarez, Buffalo marched back with 3 in the second, 2 in the third, and singletons in the fourth and sixth to take a 7-4 win. I stepped out on occasion to watch a few pitches, but from this far away, it is tough to stay focused on the game.

So in the end, I saw one game over two days, and the Bisons managed a split of their four-game set. Now onto Cincinnati to see if the Jays can get back to winning ways themselves.


Attendance for Wednesday's game was 8,888.

In Cleveland, I mentioned there was a dog performance during one of the inning breaks. Turns out that it is Jake the Diamond Dog (above) who usually performs at minor league games and was in Columbus today. He is most famous for being the bat dog for an inning or two but can be spotted delivering flowers or catching frisbees.



Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim 9 at Cleveland Indians 3 - June 17, 2014

I'm in Ohio for a week of baseball featuring Toronto teams as the Jays are in Cincinnati this weekend while their AAA affiliate Buffalo visits Columbus during the week. However, flight options to those two cities were surprisingly expensive, so I ended up getting a flight to Cleveland instead. In a happy coincidence, the Indians were hosting the Angels tonight, so I decided to return to Progressive Field to see Mike Trout do some damage.

I took the Red Line all the way downtown from the airport, as I am not picking up the rental car until tomorrow. In an interesting pricing algorithm, the cost for the car for one week is just $133 with discounts, but adding an 8th day bumps the total to $200. Given that Cleveland's RTA is only $2.25 one way and goes right to Tower City, from where Progressive Field is just a short walk, I can live without the car for one day.

I was last here in October for the Wild Card game when the place was a zoo and I couldn't even get a ticket. I found an unorthodox way in, and today the baseball gods rewarded me for my devotion to the game by giving me a free ticket. As I approached the box office to see what might be available, a gentleman asked me if I needed a ticket. Upon my affirmative reply, he handed over a paper ticket, telling me it was 4 rows behind home plate. Great, I enjoy sitting low down in the upper deck. Then I checked the ticket: Section 153. I went over to the seating map and found this to be directly behind the plate, as you can see below. Thank you, anonymous benefactor.

So yeah, I got to see the best player in baseball for free. And he hit two home runs, including an opposite field poke that bounced off the fence for a three-run dinger, and later a solo shot that was a no-doubter. Amazing to see. That is Trout batting below in the first inning (he only doubled), the netting doesn't do these seats justice.

I did have a clear view of the Angels' dugout.

Matt Shoemaker was the starter for the Angels and pitched very well, giving up a couple of runs through 8 innings while tossing just 94 pitches. As Anaheim batted in the 9th up 7-2, lightning was sighted in the distance, but the Angels didn't hurry up, seeing 36 pitches from Josh Outman and tacking on two more runs. It started drizzling then, but when Shoemaker came out for the bottom half, the skies opened and the grounds crew rolled out the tarp. Shoemaker knew his day was done. The delay was only 11 minutes, but when the game resumed, Ernesto Frieri was on the mound for the Halos, and he got through the final frame, giving up another run. I thought afterwards that the Angels should have tried to get the game finished before the rain started, in order to give Shoemaker the chance at the complete game. A distinct lack of the team philosophy there I think.

That's the game summary. A note to all other major league teams: please adopt the full game summary on the scoreboard after the game, as above. The winning, losing, and saving pitchers with records, the attendance, and the time of the game, along with a few star players. Makes for a great picture and means I don't have to recap the game.


You notice how the attendance included 300 dogs? It was puppy-palooza and more than a few fans brought their pets out to the game. I guess pets limited to one or two sections, because I did not see a single mutt in the stands the whole time I was there. The theme was not limited to fans alone. During an inning break, a frisbee-catching canine was performing in left field, with the antics shown on the scoreboard. Before the dog walked off the field, she took a short bathroom break, making left field a little wetter than usual and not impressing Raul Ibanez, who fortunately had no plays there that inning.

Two rows in front of me there was a late-arriving heckler who screamed at Trout every time he batted, with highly creative jabs such as "We know you're juiced!" and "Get off the steroids!" Hilarious stuff. Well, Trout fouled out in his second plate appearance, earning raucous cackles from the loudmouth and his chums. Apparently, these did not go unheard on the field. The next time Trout batted, the loudmouth kept up his verbal assault. Boom! Three-run homer, and after Trout crossed the plate, he actually pointed at the heckler. You can see it in the highlight of the three-run homer on The heckler found the attention gratifying, so when Trout came up next, the screaming continued. This time Trout replied with the monster shot, shutting the heckler up for good. Fortunately, he left the game before Trout batted again.

Next Up

Off to Columbus tomorrow for the Bisons, who will finish up a four-game series with a Wednesday night game and then a businessman's special on Thursday. Check back Friday for a recap.



Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Portugal 5 vs Ireland 1 (International Friendly) - June 10, 2014

You probably know that the World Cup starts tomorrow when hosts Brazil take on Croatia in the opening match. What you might not know is that the final international friendly was played yesterday as Portugal, 4th in the world according to the June FIFA rankings, took on 70th-ranked Ireland at MetLife Stadium.

My buddy Andrew was in town to pick up his visa for Brazil (he is going for the semifinal games) and so we met up in Manhattan to take the train to the Meadowlands. This was my fourth visit to the stadium, with the most recent for the Super Bowl. However, this was the first time I would take the train, which was the source of much frustration for football fans back in February. This time though, with only 46,000 attending the game and many of those driving, the train was not a problem at all. We left New York Penn Station at 6:30 pm and after a quick transfer at Secaucus, arrived at the stadium at 7 pm. The round trip ticket was $10.50.

Outside, there were few fans with extra tickets but Andrew located one seller with a single seat in Section 248. He wanted $50, but with the game starting in a few minutes, he had no leverage. I bought the ticket for $20, as Andrew felt that he could in for free and wanted to keep looking. I entered and got to my seat as the Star Spangled Banner was being sung by Dominic Chianese, who played Uncle Junior on The Sopranos. The shot above is from my seat. Andrew eventually got in, finding a seat exactly two rows behind mine, although not for free.

The big news for Portugal was the return from injury of Cristiano Ronaldo (above), the reigning Ballon d'Or holder as the best player in the world in 2013. It did not take him long to show his stuff as he managed a shot on goal in the first minute, and was instrumental in helping Portugal dominate the entire first half. After Hugo Almeida scored on a header just two minutes in, the Portuguese continued to press. In the 20th minute, Ronaldo completed a nifty back-heel pass to Fabio Coentrao, whose attempted cross struck the outstretched foot of Irish defender Richard Keough and looped into the net for an own-goal. Almeida added another in the 37th minute when a Ronaldo header was saved by Irish keeper David Forde, only to have the rebound fall to Almeida who made no mistake.

I was sitting behind the Portuguese goal for the first half, which meant little action. The Irish managed a corner kick  but it was easily taken by keeper Rui Patricio (above). At halftime, Andrew and I switched to the other end of the field so we could get to the train quickly. Ireland got an early marker in the second half from James McClean, but Portugal added two more late in the frame, including a beautiful outside foot shot from Coentrao to finish the scoring.

As it was a friendly, there were plenty of subs on both side, and Robbie Keane (below) made an appearance for the Irish, running around a lot but not adding much to the proceedings.

It was nice to see Ronaldo return to action and I will be watching the Portuguese with interest as they play Germany, Ghana, and the US in Group G.


I get asked a lot why I don't travel to the World Cup, as it offers the best atmosphere for an extended sports road trip and gets you to some relatively exotic locales. No doubt the collection of fans from such diverse countries beats even the Olympics, and the excitement before each game is unparalleled. But I already have my World Cup experience. When Japan hosted the event in 2002, I was fortunate work for FIFA as a reporter at all eight games in Saitama and Yokohama, including the final. After watching most of the game from the press box, I would head to the mixed zone (where the players and media mingle for post-game interviews). My job was to stand next to the players and record questions from the media and the players' responses. This information was entered into a proprietary system so that reporters at other venues could use the quotes in their articles. It was an amazing experience, particularly after the final when I was one of about 200 people in the mixed zone as the Brazilians ran through with the trophy, cheering loudly all the way. After that, there is no need to pay thousands of dollars to be a "regular" fan, especially when Canada is not participating. Should they make it to Russia or Qatar, then I will consider revisiting the World Cup.



Sunday, June 8, 2014

Belmont Stakes - June 7, 2014

While on my way to a NY Islanders game a few months back, the bus I was riding passed by Belmont Park. I did not realize that this famous racetrack was in New York City (well, technically it is in Elmont, just across the border from Queens) and so I immediately made plans to visit the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of horse racing's Triple Crown. Normally the race is a relatively minor event compared to the other two legs, but this year, California Chrome came in with a chance at the Triple Crown and excitement was in the air.

I took the bus again, only to have it come to a standstill about a mile away from the racetrack due to traffic. It was quicker to hop off and join the colourful contingent making their way along Hempstead Avenue. Like the Derby, fans dress up with pastels the choice for both men and women, while fancy hats were also quite common.

I had applied for a media credential through Stadium Journey and received an email the night before indicating where to pick it up, but it turns out I wasn't approved after all. Given the disorganization that the NYRA demonstrated with the entire media application, this wasn't surprising. With admission just $10 for the grandstand, there was no problem getting in, but I was limited to that area. There are three floors in the grandstand, each with dozens of betting windows, concessions selling overpriced food and beer, and 33,000 seats, all reserved for ticket holders. Attendance was announced at 102,199 but it seemed like a lot more as there was no room at all anywhere, with long lines at food stalls, restrooms, and the betting windows. Below is a shot of the interior of the grandstand, still hours before the big race; by 6 pm it was even more crowded.

The clubhouse is located on the east side of the track and admission here was $30. There didn't seem to be any additional benefit to getting in here, but there was a small commemorative display for Woody Stephens, who trained five consecutive Belmont Stakes winners between 1982 and 1986.

Post time was 11:35, but I didn't arrive until after 2, and by the time I got myself sorted, the 7th race was about to begin. I wandered down to the finish line to watch that, and probably should have stayed there. But with the time between races 45 minutes or longer, standing in the heat with the crowds was not a pleasant option, so I took a tour. The paddock is where the horses are paraded before moving to the track. This allows knowledgeable bettors to get a close up look at the thoroughbreds to see if there is anything that might affect them during the race. I stopped by briefly but it wasn't that exciting.

I made my way to the upper tier and sat there for the 8th race. The weather was perfect as you can see below but with all seats reserved, I knew I wouldn't be able to stay here for long. My friend Andrew was visiting from Philadelphia (a 2-hour drive took 4 due to the traffic) and we met up and walked around some more.

By the time the 10th race had finished, most of the crowd had taken their spots for the Belmont Stakes. I moved down to the first floor near the finish line, but with at least 10 people in front of me, there was little to see and no point in even trying to take a picture. I watched the race on the large TV on the track and as it became clear that California Chrome would not take the Triple Crown, the crowd immediately deflated. Tonalist won out of the 11 gate while California Chrome finished in a dead heat for fourth. Although there were two more races on the card, most fans started leaving right away. "Let's Go Rangers!"chants were heard among the departing, but on this night, California got a measure of revenge on New York as the Kings won in 2OT (and the Giants beat the Mets too).

I plan to go to the Belmont again next year, but this time I'll buy tickets in advance, seats can be had for as low as $20. If you want to visit New York, early June is a good time to do so and you can add one of horse racing's biggest events to your sporting resume.