Thursday, September 17, 2015

Rugby World Cup Trip Planned!

The 2015 Rugby World Cup begins this Friday with England taking on Fiji. The tournament is being held in England and Wales, and Canada is participating, so I've been thinking about taking a short trip over there to see a game or two. Of course, the EPL is underway and the Euro Qualifiers are entering the home stretch, and even the NFL is in town with the Jets and Dolphins playing the first of 3 NFL games on October 4. With all that sport, I was finally convinced to purchase a ticket and am heading over for 4 quick days, which should include 5 or 6 games, including Canada taking on Romania in Leicester.

The trip schedule is as follows:

Sat, Oct 3 West Brom at Crystal Palace (EPL)  12:45
Sat, Oct 3 Southampton at Chelsea (EPL)        5:30
Sun, Oct 4 Fulham at Charlton (Championship)  12:00
Sun, Oct 4 Italy vs Ireland (Pool D, RWC)      4:45
Mon, Oct 5 Leamington at Hitchin Town (SPL)    7:45
Tue, Oct 6 Canada vs Romania (Pool D, RWC)     4:45

That game on October 5 is the Southern League Premier Division, the semi-professional seventh level of English soccer. I can't wait to see it.

I was initially planning to stay for the Euro Qualifiers in Ireland and England on October 8 and 9, but I'm heading back on October 7 to watch the baseball playoffs as the Blue Jays should be involved. I'm skipping the NFL game as well, as I have already seen one at Wembley and the 2:30 start time precludes either game that I am planning to attend instead.

As always, I'll be updating here, so check back next month!



Saturday, September 12, 2015

Grey Cup Trip Planned!

When my buddy Eddie texted me a few weeks back and told me he had an extra Grey Cup ticket (the game is in Winnipeg this year), I checked the schedule and found that the Leafs would be visiting the Jets just 3 days later. Furthermore they would be in Minnesota and St. Louis immediately thereafter, and thus another sports road trip was born.

I also need to return to Canada to change my visa status around that time, which gives me a few more games to add to the schedule, including a stop in Mississauga to see the Raptors new NBA D-League franchise. Here is the entire trip:

Thu, Nov 19 Columbus Blue Jackets at Ottawa Senators                      7:00
Sun, Nov 22 Fort Wayne Komets at Brampton Beast (ECHL)                    2:00
Sun, Nov 22 Ottawa 67s at Oshawa Generals (OHL)                           6:05
Wed, Nov 25 Idaho Stampede at Raptors 905 (NBA D-League)                  7:00
Thu, Nov 26 Sarnia Sting at Peterborough Petes (OHL)                      7:05
Sun, Nov 29 Grey Cup - Edmonton Eskimos vs Ottawa RedBlacks               5:00
Wed, Dec  2 Toronto Maple Leafs at Winnipeg Jets                          7:00
Thu, Dec  3 Toronto Maple Leafs at Minnesota Wild                         7:00
Fri, Dec  4 Ohio State Buckeyes at Minnesota Golden Gophers (NCAA Hockey) 7:00
Sat, Dec  5 Toronto Maple Leafs at St. Louis Blues                        6:00
Sun, Dec  6 Arizona Cardinals at St. Louis Rams                          12:00

As always, check back regularly for updates.



Wednesday, September 9, 2015

UCLA Bruins 1 at Georgetown Hoyas 3 (NCAA Soccer) - September 7, 2015

I came to Washington to attend a couple of Nationals games, and I saw the horrid Braves on Sunday. But when I was told that my ticket from a postponed game months ago wasn't good for exchange for Monday's Mets matinee, I decided to forgo MLB, who won't be seeing any of my money for a while. That doesn't necessarily mean I won't be attending, but I will be using other methods of gaining access and spending not a cent on food or souvenirs.

Anyway, with Monday afternoon suddenly open, I looked for other alternatives and found something intriguing as #12 Georgetown soccer was hosting #1 UCLA in an afternoon game. So I made my way up to Shaw Field to see some amateur sports.

Shaw Field is located in the northwest quadrant of Georgetown's campus, which is itself in the northwest section of Washington. There is no convenient Metro station; I walked about 30 minutes from Rosslyn on the Blue Line, concluding with a short jaunt through campus, which is under quite a bit of construction. There are buses that will get you closer, including the Georgetown University Transportation Shuttle (GUTS), but you'll have to do that research yourself.

Shaw Field opened in 1996 and both the men's and women's squads practiced there for five years before the first game was held during the fall season in 2001. During the summer of 2012, the venue underwent major renovations, including a new scoreboard and a larger grandstand with chairback seating. There is no shade here, so make sure to bring a hat and some sunscreen if you are there for an afternoon game.

There is a small concession stand with burgers and yakitori, though the menu might change from game to game. You can bring in your own food as well, this is a pretty relaxed venue here.

Tickets are $10 for GA, and the crowd was surprisingly strong for a holiday Monday, with 2,159 on hand, exceeding capacity by 534. Those without seats were students who got to stand along the endline and far sidelines, a great vantage point that had me wishing I was a lot younger. They were cheering their team on from the get go and really got under the nerves of the visiting Bruins.

There's not much else to discuss here; collegiate soccer is not popular and thus the venues are pretty sparse in terms of amenities. Still, if you are in Washington and want to check out a sporting event that few others will even consider, look to Georgetown soccer.

The Game

It is early in the season but defending runner-up UCLA had won their first game before losing to Maryland on Friday, while Georgetown (starters above), initially ranked fourth in the country, had lost twice after a scoreless draw and were ranked #12.

The first half hour was played mostly at midfield as both teams struggled to create meaningful chances. After 35 minutes, Brett Campbell came on for Georgetown (there were unlimited substitutions in this game and players were allowed back in after being taken out) and promptly scored when a cross from Keegan Rosenberry deflected off a defender to Campbell, who laced it past Juan Cervantes (below).

Early in the second half, a seemingly harmless pass from Hoya Brandon Allen was beautifully headed by Arun Basuljevic (#7 below) over a flat footed Cervantes and Georgetown had doubled their lead.

UCLA got one back when Georgetown failed to clear and the ball bounced to Jackson Yueill who slotted home. UCLA continued to press but could not find the equalizer, and their defense was left open, allowing a 3-on-2 break that finished with Campbell converting to clinch the game with three minutes to go.

UCLA was visibly frustrated and spent the last few minutes committing some hard tackles, leading to some words and eventually a scuffle (above) that resulted in a yellow card to UCLA's Abu Daniadi but nothing more serious.

There's the final above, a pretty good game for the last hour or so. Compared to the Nats meltdown that took 3 1/2 hours, I think I made the right choice.


In college soccer, the clock counts down from 45 minutes and is stopped after goals and injuries or during extended arguments, so the time of goals is reported like hockey. I actually prefer this because it is more precise.

After the rankings were released on Tuesday, Georgetown had fallen to #25 while UCLA had dropped to #8.



Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Atlanta Braves 4 at Washington Nationals 8 - September 6, 2015

I spent Labour Day weekend in Washington, initially planning to check out a couple of Nationals games. I wanted to exchange my ticket from when the Blue Jays were rained out back in June, but found out that having StubHub tickets for postponed games is an unenviable position to be in. More on that later.

I saw a few games here when the ballpark opened in 2008, but had not been back after moving to the States. The stadium is located in the southeastern part of the city, next to Navy Yard, and easily accessible by Washington's Metro system, with the Green Line's Navy Yard station the closest, though the Blue Line's Capitol South station is about a mile away and much less crowded and a good option after the game.

You'll likely enter through the centerfield gate regardless of which station you choose (obviously the picture above was taken on the rainout day). Once inside, if you are there early enough, you will see the president mascots roaming around. That's Tom below, his number corresponding to his being the third president.

When the Nationals first started the President's Race, there were four (George, Tom, Abe (below), and Teddy) but they've added Bill (Taft, not Clinton) and Cal (Coolidge) since then.

Once you've taken the obligatory pictures with the mascots, you can check out the starting lineup, presented in baseball card format. A great touch for those of us who keep score.

If you want something to eat, you can try the Red Porch, which is a bar and restaurant with benches overlooking centerfield. It gets busy and tables have an hour time limit during the game, but you can stand at the bar and watch the game from there if you prefer.

Walk along the concourse towards third base and continue to the area behind home plate, which is blocked from the field. You will notice several large boards detailing the history of baseball in Washington. These are well worth the time to read as there's lots of information of which you are likely unaware. The pictures of presidents throwing out the first pitch is particularly interesting. Also note that you can find your designated driver sign up spot here.

Just beyond is a collection of comic baseball figures spinning from the ceiling. I don't know what they signify but they are pretty cool.

There is another interesting spot here behind the scoreboard. A number of picnic tables and quality food options such as Steak and Shake attract fans, who can watch the game on a large screen above. Maybe this is where all those disappearing fans that offended Bryce Harper actually went.

You can see the Capitol Building from the first base side, though it is currently under renovations and barely visible in the photo below.

A couple of other shots to give you a feeling of the place. There are two good standing spots as well, one on the second level in the space between the decks below, and another on the 300 level behind home plate.

This is the view from my seat in section 408:

Of course, the highlight for most fans is the President's Race, which was won by Cal after the other mascots all collided. That's Tom on his face below.

Overall, this is a pretty nice ballpark that offers plenty to see and do beyond the game. Which was good on this day, because the game was crap.

The Game

The abysmal Atlanta Braves were in town on an 11-game losing streak, and they sent Manny Banuelos to the hill against Joe Ross (below). Marquee is not a word one would use to describe this pitching matchup.

Atlanta scored a run in the first, but Washington ended things in the second with a fivespot, highlighted by a Michael Taylor (below) 2-run double and a 3-run homer from Jason Werth that scored Taylor and Ross, who had walked. Harper added a solo shot in the third and the Nats made it 7-1 on an Atlanta error. Both teams scored a run in the fourth and the rout was on.

All Ross needed to do was finish five frames to secure the easy win, but he fell apart just a couple of outs shy, yielding a double to Jace Pederson and walking Freddie Freeman, earning a quick hook from manager Matt Williams. The Washington bullpen allowed both inherited runners to score, but then threw 4.2 innings of scoreless relief as the Nationals won 8-4, sweeping the Braves to enter their series against the Mets just four games out.

StubHub and MLB

On the morning of June 1, I bought a ticket on StubHub for that evening's Blue Jays-Nationals game that ended up being rained out. I couldn't make the rescheduled game on the following afternoon, but thought I could exchange the ticket since Washington, like most teams in MLB, has an arrangement with StubHub. The benefit of this integration is that you know you are getting a valid ticket on the secondary market, but as I discovered, there is a problem if that game is rained out.

When you have an MLB ticket, you get a raincheck and can exchange that ticket for any other game during the season. With the StubHub ticket (it is relabelled as such so you know it is a secondary market ticket), you must attend the rescheduled game or else the ticket is worthless. I find this to be silly, the ticket should confer all the rights afforded to the original owner. The Nationals ticket guy told me that since the team doesn't see any of the StubHub money, they are not obliged to honour the ticket. This makes no sense to me, and unhappy at getting nothing for something, I complained vociferously to StubHub. To be fair, their Terms of Service explains this policy, but I wanted more detailed reasoning.

In the end, I received a personalized response that made sense for the most part, describing the relationship between StubHub and those teams as an integration rather than an agreement. Obviously StubHub cannot exchange the ticket as they are a secondary ticket provider and don't have an unlimited supply of tickets, nor can they provide a refund as the seller has already been paid so my complaint should have been directed at MLB or the Nationals.

I was told that some teams do offer exchanges on StubHub tickets for games that have been postponed, but it is a haphazard approach at best and the Nationals are not one of the teams that do so. I can understand why they did not want to give me a free ticket, from their point of view at least, to a key Labour Day matchup against the Mets, but as it wasn't a sellout, why not offer me a cheap ticket and get me inside the stadium where I could create some ancillary revenue? Instead, I was offered nothing, so I cursed the Nationals and went to Georgetown soccer. Over the next three days, my curse (or karma) saw the Nats swept by the Mets and essentially eliminated from playoff contention.

Finally StubHub did offer me a coupon in the amount that I had spent on the ticket, and so I will remain a loyal customer of theirs as they displayed some of the best customer service I have experienced, replying with two long, personalized emails. Still, I won't be buying MLB tickets through them when I travel as the risk of being left with nothing in the event of a postponement is just too high. Keep that in mind yourself if you are ever on the road and looking for a way in to an MLB game; if there are clouds in the sky, get a normal ticket so you can resell it if the game is postponed.



Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Protective Netting Debate

On my recent trip throughout the Carolinas, most of the ballparks I visited had protective netting to the far edge of the dugout and in some cases all the way down the lines. In those cases, as there were no outfield sections, not a single seat in the venue had a clear, unobstructed view of the action. I find it crazy that fans 250 feet away require a net to protect them, but nowadays, it seems like I am in the minority and based on recent news articles, MLB will be adding more protective netting starting next season.

Injured Fans

Over the past couple of months, there have been several incidents of fans at major league games being struck by batted balls or broken bats and taken out of the game on a stretcher. Most of these fans (usually women or children) are sitting in the first few rows directly above the dugout, and I will admit that these are dangerous spots to sit. I have sat in similar seats in major and minor league parks around the country and am fortunate to have never been hit by a ball, though there have been a few close calls.

To be sure, injured fans are not a new thing. In 1943, a fan at Griffith Stadium was killed by an errant throw from third baseman Sherry Robertson. Back in 2009 at Mahoning Valley, a baby boy was being held in his father's arms when a foul ball hit him in the back of the head. Thankfully he survived but it took several years of rehabilitation before his life returned to normality. In 2010, a woman died at an independent league game in Texas after a foul ball hit her in the head. One enterprising author has compiled an incomplete list of foul ball injuries this year. On my own trips in the past month, I can recall two incidents: a young boy, sitting about six rows above the dugout, hit in the face by a foul ball in Lowell, suffering a nasty cut; and a fan well down the line in Charlotte being hit in the head with a slow liner while chatting with her friend. In the first incident, there was nothing that could be done; in the second, though, the fan probably should have been looking towards the action.

So why the sudden increase? I have no evidence to support my assertions, but I think there are three primary reasons.

1) Faster pitches in smaller ballparks. The newer parks place fans closer to the action than those old cookie cutter stadiums and pitchers are throwing faster than before. This is leading to more foul balls reaching the seats much more quickly than a decade ago.

2) Casual fans. Over the past 20 years or so, MLB has become much more popular, and the increase is mostly due to the casual fan, someone who really doesn't follow the game but goes for the social aspect. Many of these fans can afford the good seats, or they go as part of a corporate event, but for whatever reason, they find themselves in prime locations. Where they proceed to bury their faces in their smartphones to tell everyone that they are at the game, when they can't even name the starting pitchers. For them, the game is secondary, so they don't pay attention as closely as they should.

3) Social media. Nowadays, every event at the ballpark is immediately reported on. So when a fan gets hit, it becomes news. Years ago, this wasn't the case; even the tragic incident in San Angelo in 2010 did not make national news.

The combination of the first two factors has led to the rapid increase of fans getting hurt by foul balls while the third has raised awareness. Players are also more vocal now, with Justin Verlander the most obvious example. This makes sense, nobody wants to be responsible for injuring or killing someone else accidentally, so the MLBPA has lobbied for more netting in the past, only to be rebuffed by the owners, who want to keep the premium season-ticket holders happy.

Media Reaction

All of these incidents have made protective netting has a hot-button topic and I have heard a number of sports media personalities weigh in. Mike Greenberg of ESPN's Mike & Mike recounted taking his children to Wrigley Field and being given seats right above the dugout, where he spent the afternoon being "vigilant", concluding that something had to be done. Buck Martinez echoed the sentiment on a recent Blue Jays broadcast, and you can find several articles online, such as this piece arguing for netting from foul pole to foul pole.

In all of these cases, the protective netting in Japan is mentioned. However, none of these people actually spent time in Japan going to games. Let me tell you as someone who sat through a couple of hundred NPB games, the netting makes a difference down the lines. I am not going to say it ruins the experience, but it made going to games there quite frustrating. And there is a difference between watching a game from behind the plate, where you are looking straight out, and past the bases, where you are looking back at an angle.

The advent of the netting in hockey is also brought up as a comparison. The difference between the two is that the hockey netting doesn't interfere with the good seats, it really only impacts the upper level sections behind the goal and during the action, it is not that noticeable as the netting is far away from the viewer.

Idiots Get Involved

So we have a season ticket holder in Oakland (recall that the A's play at the ballpark with the largest foul territory in the majors) who sits in section 211 (yes 211) complaining that 3 or 4 times a game, a ball comes into her section. The solution? Cover the entire ballpark with protective netting, from foul pole to foul pole. Yes, this single individual would rather inconvenience thousands upon thousands of fans instead of herself and her family. Simpler solutions? Move to a section behind the netting or bring a glove. Nope, instead a class-action lawsuit is filed. As is the norm in America these days, the answer is to blame someone else and ask them to solve the problem, rather than take care of it yourself.

What to Do?

Obviously, the netting behind home plate is necessary. And with the changes to the game, another section of netting above the dugouts should be installed, though at major league parks, it should protect the lower rows only, giving fans the option to sit in row 25 or 30 and have a clear view of the pitcher and batter. But that's it. There is no need to have netting all the way down the lines. It does detract from the experience and will only protect those who are not paying attention. BB&T Ballpark in Charlotte is like this, with a small net atop the dugout, and I had no problem with it, because I could stand on the concourse and get a clear view.

I understand the desire to protect fans but there are limits. The unfortunate death of the fan who fell over the railing from the second deck in Atlanta last week has led to a call for increasing the height of barriers, but the more you do that, the more they impact the view if you are in the first few rows of the upper deck. At some point, people have to take responsibility for themselves. 

Let me be frank. If you are sitting at a baseball game 20-30 rows up behind the dugouts or anywhere past the bases and you get hit by a foul ball, it is your own fault. You are simply not paying attention to the game. In Toronto I was a section or two past first base and Ben Revere hit a scorcher that went just a few feet above my head, landing three or four rows behind. What did everyone do? They ducked and dodged, because they were paying attention. It was definitely frightening for a second or two and fans chattered about it for a few minutes afterwards, but no harm was done.

I really have no idea what MLB will decide. For the most part, I've been priced out of the good seats in New York, so I always sit in the upper deck, where it doesn't matter. But in other cities, I sometimes can pick up a cheap ticket between the bases on the secondary market. I really enjoy sitting close and having a clear view of the entire field. I have never feared for my safety, because I've been attending baseball for years and understand the potential for injury, so I watch the game. But if there are no more lower bowl seats with a clear view, I won't be forking over wads of cash to sit there and yet another pleasure in life will be lost due to those who cannot think for themselves.