Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Long Island Ducks 3 at Somerset Patriots 2 (Atlantic League, Liberty Division Championship, Game 5) - September 23, 2018

The minor league baseball season has ended, but there are still independent league playoffs going on. I am not a big fan of indy ballgames as they feature players either well past their prime or minor-league washouts, but the stadiums are often just as nice as those in the minors. Such is the case in Bridgewater, NJ where the Somerset Patriots of the Atlantic League play out of TD Bank Ballpark.

The stadium is located right next to the Bridgewater station on the Raritan Valley line of New Jersey Transit, making it a 2-hour trip from door to door. The Patriots were hosting the fifth and deciding game of the Liberty Division Championship against the Long Island Ducks on Sunday night and although trains are only hourly on the weekend, the 5:05 game time lined up perfectly with the schedule, with a train arriving at 4:24, giving me about 40 minutes to do a tour.

Even better, the game was not a hot ticket, despite Friday's Game 3 setting a record for attendance for the Patriots (8,143), who also lead the league in fans through the gate, averaging over 5,100 this year. In order to encourage fans sitting on the fence, they had a flash sale online with upper box tickets going for just $5 instead of the usual $11.50. So I picked one up and headed over to Penn Station to catch the train. In a rare occurrence for transit in NYC, all trains were on time and I arrived with plenty of time to wander around.

The ballpark is like most in the minors - two seating levels separated by a walkway and an open concourse above that allows you to stand and watch the game under cover. Suites are on top of the concourse while a picnic area is in the left field corner, and a speed pitch booth could be found above right field. There are several concession stands selling typical fare at surprisingly high prices. A hot dog was $4.75 as were bottles of Coke. The specialty item is a Jersey Burger with is a half-pound patty topped with pork roll, bacon, fries, cheese, tomatoes and pickles for $13.75. Yikes. Try the pork roll sandwich to taste a bit of New Jersey. It is like bologna, but it's not.

The ballpark has aged well over its 20-year history. Note the space between rows, quite a bit of legroom compared to some other ballparks, and how the press box is not exactly behind home plate.

The Patriots have won 6 titles in their time here and there is a trophy highlighting this accomplishment.

Along the wall down the third base line is the Handle Bar Wall of Fame. Why Handle Bar? Sparky Lyle was the manager here from the team's inception through 2012. One of the team's mascots is Sparkee, whose inflatable greets you outside the main gate. Note the handlebar moustache. There is also a small bar here called the Handle Bar where you can sit and drink while watching the game.

The Wall of Fame consists of five boards that detail the team's history, records, championships, players in the majors, and community work. It is really well presented and worth a few minutes of your time to study. One big difference between the minors and independent ball is that players stay with their teams much longer when they are not working their way up the ladder. Jeff Nettles, son of Graig, spent 9 seasons at Somerset amassing 1,006 games and 154 homers among other marks. Not too often that a minor league club will have a player there for even half that time.


Like other minor league parks, there is a starting lineup board for those keeping score. Note the number of former major leaguers, including Endy Chavez as the Somerset DH, who made the last out in Expo history.

The outfield fence is covered in ads just like any other minor league stadium, with a single scoreboard above right field. The train tracks lie just beyond and you can hear and see the trains passing. Both eastbound and westbound trains arrive around 23 or 24 after the hour and it was nice to see them on time for the three hours the game took.

Overall, I really enjoyed this ballpark, which ticks all the boxes for me: easy transit access, cheap tickets, local food items, and history on display. The only thing that annoyed me was the near constant "Somerset!" blaring from the speakers followed by the fans yelling "Patriots!" in response. It was done twice each time as well, and usually 3-4 times per inning. That did get tiring after the 20th time, but otherwise the experience was one that I really appreciated.

The Game

As mentioned, the train schedule was ideal for me, with a train back to Newark leaving at 8:23, meaning a three hour game would end in plenty of time. All I wanted to avoid was a game finishing just as the train pulled away, forcing me to wait for another hour.

Former Duck Bobby Blevins (AAA with LA in 2010) started for the Patriots and gave up a run in the second, but Chavez singled with the bases-loaded single off Dennis O'Grady (AAA with San Diego in 2015) to make it 2-1 after three. Long Island's David Washington (who had 6 AB and 5 K last year with Baltimore) singled to tie it up in the 5th and then the bullpens came in and zeros kept going up on the scoreboard as the clock mercilessly ticked towards 8:23.

Still tied at 2, Francisco (K-Rod) Rodriguez came in to pitch the bottom of the 9th for Long Island and gave up a leadoff double to Ramon Flores (who played a full season with Milwaukee in 2016) and the end was in sight. Up came Justin Pacchioli (who went 0-15 in the Carolina League last year) who had one job: get Flores to third. Instead, after fouling off a couple of pitches, he took a called third strike on a full count (a walk means nothing in that situation). Just a terrible plate appearance. It was around 8:00 when this was happening, so I was pretty frustrated at Pacchioli's inability to move the runner, and even more so when the next two batters got out to send us to extras. At this point, I figured I would just stay the extra hour, but the Ducks mounted a two-out rally. Taylor Ard (who topped out in AA with Miami last year) and Washington singled, bringing up Ramon Cabrera (who spent 74 games with Cincinnati in 2015-16). Cabrera hit a weak pop fly to shallow center and it fell in between the fielders, allowing Ard to score the go-ahead run.

The Ducks brought in Matt Larkins to close as the clock neared 8:20. He struck out the first batter at which time I decided to leave. By the time I reached the train platform, the game had ended 3-2 for Long Island, with the official ending time at 8:22. As it turns out, I could have stayed for those last couple of outs as the train was a few minutes late but I was still happy with the outcome. Overall though, my opinion of independent ball did not change - the games are not played with a fundamental soundness that you see in affiliated baseball, where instruction and improvement are the goals. There are five other independent league teams in the area, including Long Island, and I will probably try to get to each one once to see the stadium, but no more than that.


The Freedom Division champs are the Sugar Land Skeeters, who hail from the Houston area. Yep, Texas. Not sure why they are members of the Atlantic League, but they will be taking on Long Island this week for the title. The Skeeters won the first game of the series 5-4 in 13 innings and had a 2-0 lead when the series moved to Long Island, but the Ducks won the next two to force a winner take all game. Sugar Land prevailed 4-1 to win the title. Interestingly, the pattern for the final series was the same as for the semi-final series: home team wins first 4, but visitors clinch on the road.

You will note how I described each player here, giving their top level reached or their major league highlights. Some more famous names were Lew Ford, who spent five years with the Twins but is now 42, and Jordany Valdespin, whose career WAR is -0.8. So you can see why the quality of the games is not quite there. Independent league ball has been compared to A-ball, but again, these are guys much older than the typical A-ball player. That is why indy ball is all about the experience, not the game.



Thursday, September 20, 2018

Seattle Seahawks 17 at Chicago Bears 24 - September 17, 2018

One of my new and entirely pointless goals is to see every team in the Big 4 on the road. Yeah, I'm really running out of reasons to go on sports road trips. Anyway, I have seen every team in the NHL, NBA, and MLB as visitors but still had seven squads in the NFL that I had yet to witness being booed savagely by the fans. I saw Jacksonville open the season against the Giants last week, and this week decided to spend a night in Chicago to see the Seahawks take on the Bears on Monday Night Football.

After an uneventful flight from LaGuardia, I took the train into the city. I stayed in Chinatown, which is actually just a short walk from the Solider Field. There is a pedestrian bridge over the train tracks that can be accessed from 18th Street and leads to an underpass to the stadium (above). Even two hours before the game there were plenty of fans on the way, so you can't get lost.

After coming out of the underpass, you are at Gate 0 on the south side of the stadium. The west side is where I would be sitting, so I entered via Gate 9 and walked up the long flight of stairs to the 300 level, where you can find the promenade with its Doric columns.

Thanks to fellow sports traveler Andrew, who has season tickets, I was sitting at the goal line in the upper deck (view below).

I wandered around a bit, getting my free bottle of water as a designated driver and grabbing a Buona Italian Beef, my go-to sandwich when in Chicago. Along the way, I took a few pictures from different areas of the stadium. Below is a shot of the north end zone, which is not as steep as the other areas.

The upper deck looking south.

The seating bowl from the promenade level, with the columns to the right.

The field from the north end zone.

There are also some historical touches and a couple of displays that were interesting. Above each section is a past Bear great, such as Red Grange welcoming you to Section 443.

On the first floor near Gate 15 there is a large monument dedicated to Bears founder George Halas.

When I visited on my 2013 trip, there were a number of historical displays on the west side, but they had been removed. In their place was a Bears locker room experience booth, where you could put on helmets for photo opportunities.

The theme this season is Monsters of the Midway and set to a comic book motif. Former Bear Israel Idonije and his company Athlitacomics came up with the idea and you can see it everywhere around the stadium, including this giant poster. Tickets and the game day program are also designed in this style and are collectibles if you can get every one.

Before the game, five military skydivers jumped in, with the final two unfurling the Stars and Stripes and the POW/MIA flag. Quite a cool sight as always.

Of course, Bear Down Chicago Bears is the theme song, and this slogan was on display as the Bears defense was introduced. Newly acquired Khalil Mack received the loudest cheers.

Halftime saw Brian Urlacher honoured for his Hall of Fame induction earlier this year. NFL halftimes are usually 12 minutes but today it was 14 minutes so they could get everything set up, introduce many of Urlacher's former teammates, listen to a speech from owner Virginia Halas McCaskey, and have Urlacher speak as well. It was done with precision timing and most fans stayed in their seats to watch.

There was also a game, which turned out to be exactly the type of game I like: defensive, with lots of running plays and some extended drives to take time off the clock. Seattle got the ball first and punted after an 8-play drive that ended with the first of 6 Chicago sacks on Russell Wilson. The Bears started from their 4 and marched down the field, helped by three Seattle penalties, scoring a touchdown on a shovel pass from Mitch Trubisky to Trey Burton. In the second quarter, Trubisky threw a couple of picks leading to a few TrubINTsky tweets, but the Seahawks could not capitalize. With 6:33 remaining in the half, Chicago began a drive from their own 49. They ran 12 plays for only 44 yards, taking 5:26 off the clock before kicking a field goal. It was almost perfect, but they left Seattle just enough time to run the two-minute drill and Sebastian Janikowski nailed a 56-yard field goal to make it 10-3 at the half.

The third quarter was scoreless, but the Bears used the last 5:30 to move the ball to the Seattle 17. On the second play of the final frame, Trubisky found rookie Anthony Miller in the end zone to give the Bears a 17-3 lead. It was Miller's first NFL touchdown, quite a story for a guy who was a walk-on at Memphis.  On their ensuing possession, Seattle finally got their offense clicking, driving 75 yards culminating in a 19-yard pass from Wilson to Tyler Lockett. After the Bears punted, Seattle had a chance to tie, but Wilson was intercepted by Prince Amukamara, who took it 49 yards for the touchdown. It was Wilson's first pick six since 2012, his rookie year and it essentially clinched the game. Seattle did score a touchdown with 14 seconds left as Chicago allowed them to march down the field taking time off the clock, but the onside kick was easily taken by Chicago as they won 24-17, my favourite football score.

A good game with Chicago winning due to ball control and stifling defense. Trubisky still has some learning to do, but he could become a competent game manager and this team could surprise later in the season.


The remaining NFL games this season to see all road teams: Houston at Indianapolis on September 30, Tennessee at Buffalo on October 7, Pittsburgh at Cincinnati on October 14, Tampa Bay at the Giants on November 18, and Green Bay at the Jets on December 23.



Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Howard Bison 1 at St. Francis Brooklyn Terriers 3 (NCAA Soccer) - September 16, 2018

I've seen all the NCAA Division I football and basketball venues in New York City, so now it is on to other sports. One venue that I had been meaning to see is Brooklyn Bridge Park, where St. Francis Brooklyn soccer plays.

Located just across the East River from Lower Manhattan, the park provides spectacular views of the skyline, as you can see below. The team plays on Pier 5 and you can get here by walking down Joralemon Street under the BQE. I biked the 9 miles from home using CitiBike, but the Court Street train stop is about 15 minutes away on foot.

There is no admission fee and there are several benches along the west side that afford the view you see above. No food or drink is sold either, so bring your own. I expected just a few dozen fans would be in attendance, but there were 426 on hand to see the Terriers take on the Howard Bison in early season action. Most were associated with one of the two programs (i.e. friends and family) but a few were passersby who stopped in to watch on a perfect afternoon. This might be the most scenic spot in NCAA sports, and certainly one of the least known.

The game was more entertaining than expected, with St. Francis scoring 3 excellent goals, including a superb free kick from Marco Torriani for the only goal of the first half. After Howard tied it off a corner, St. Francis regained the lead on a diving header from Ali Tounkara who finished a perfect cross from Amir Islami, the top play in the NEC that week. The Terriers clinched it when Matteo Caribotti slammed home another perfect pass from Islami as they went on to win 3-1. The scoreboard is barely visible in the middle of the frame, with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background.

A good game by the home team, who showed some quality finishing. I don't think any MLS scouts were in attendance, but they would have been impressed. Highlights are on YouTube and worth watching for the goals, if not the view.



Thursday, September 13, 2018

Miami Marlins 0 at New York Mets 13 - September 12, 2018

Whenever a game was rained out in New York and rescheduled as part of a single admission doubleheader, I immediately planned on attending, particularly since tickets become very cheap. With the family addition though, 8 hours at the ballpark is no longer an option on most days, but the cheap tickets are still worth it for one of the games. Such was the case on Wednesday, after Monday's tilt between the Mets and Marlins was postponed. They avoided the doubleheader on September 11, likely because the weather at that time looked like it would continue through Tuesday. Instead, it cleared up and they played a single game that night, but the rain returned on Wednesday, which sent the price of tickets for the DH down even further.

The first game was scheduled for 4:10, which was not possible for me with family commitments, so I planned to attend the second game, expected to begin around 7:15. Still, I had to get my ticket around 4:00 as StubHub usually stops sales when the first game starts, so I bought a ticket in the Delta Club for $15 plus fees, the cheapest I have ever seen for that location (view below).  Even though a light rain was falling, I expected them to start the first game on time. But for some reason, the tarp was put on the field and there it stayed. And stayed. And stayed. I was following along at home, and the Mets released no news about a start time. Friends who were in the stadium were frustrated with the lack of information, particularly as they could have played in that weather. Moreover, the Marlins had another game at Citi Field on Thursday, plus they would finish the season there with a three-game set. They could easily have set up another DH on Thursday and another over the final weekend without issue, as both teams are not bound for the playoffs. It made no sense that they would let fans wait so long without a snippet of info when so many other options were available, and many frustrated fans left after 3 or 4 hours of waiting.

Meanwhile, I stayed at home checking Twitter for updates. Finally, at 9:15, the news came through: first pitch would be at 9:45, making it 5:35 rain delay, the third longest in MLB history. I felt for the people who had waited that long for this game, but for me, waiting out the delay at home was perfect. Even though only one game of the scheduled DH would be played, that was enough for me. I raced to the subway station and arrived at Citi Field at 10:00, the latest I have ever entered a sporting event.

I only missed the scoreless first, and stayed until the end as the Mets clobbered the Marlins 13-0 behind a 3-run shot from Amed Rosario and a grand slam from Jay Bruce. Zack Wheeler threw 8 strong innings but was drained after the long delay, despite having thrown only 89 pitches. Paul Sewald closed things out, with the game finishing at 12:15. The Mets certainly rewarded those fans who had stayed until the end, but as you can see above, there weren't many of them.

It is baffling that MLB and the Mets would treat their paying customers so poorly, but I am sure there was a good reason behind it. Fortunately, the Mets will allow those who have a ticket for Wednesday's game to exchange it for a weekday game later in the season or next April. So it is possible that I will end up seeing two games for the price of one after all.



Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Revisiting the U.S. Open

The U.S. Open tennis tournament has become one of my favourite sporting events, at least when I can afford it. Two years ago, tickets were incredibly cheap on the secondary market, even for the men's and women's finals, and I attended five times. Last year was far more expensive and I didn't go once, while this year had enough cheap (and free) days that I again went five times: once for qualifying and then four times during the tournament proper.

Despite visiting so often, I saw few matches start to finish, with matches taking quite long and access to courts limited due to the large number of fans in attendance. I went on the first Thursday hoping to see Naomi Osaka (the eventual champion, but more on that later), but she dominated her match against Julia Glushko so completely that it was long finished before I arrived. The following match between bad boy Nick Kyrgios and Pierre-Hugues Hebert made news for the umpire leaving his chair to encourage Kyrgios, and I reached Court 17 just as that was finishing up. This allowed me to move into the second row for the following match between Canadian Eugenie Bouchard and Marketa Vondrousova from Czechia. They appeared wearing identical outfits (above) as both are sponsored by Nike, who seem to have limited clothing options for unseeded players. This fashion faux pas resulted in some snickering from the crowd, but did not bother Vondrousova, who beat Genie (below) 6-4, 6-3.

I spent the next couple of hours wandering from court to court, checking out the Grandstand where 17th-seed Lucas Pouille was battling Marcos Baghdatis (serving below). I watched the third set which Pouille won to take a 2-1 lead. Then the new extreme heat rules kicked in - the players got a 10-minute break and retreated to the dressing room to cool down.

Rather than sit around baking on the metal benches, I decided to head over to the newly rebuilt Louis Armstrong court to watch 21st-seed Kei Nishikori against Gael Monfils, the opening match of the night session. The upper deck here is open to all, and I wanted to arrive early to get a decent seat, finding one along the baseline (view below). The match was quite disappointing as Monfils retired down 6-2, 5-4.

Before leaving, I made one final tour of the grounds, and stopped at Court 5, where 26th-seed Richard Gasquet (below) was facing Laslo Djere. Despite the late hour and rather pedestrian matchup (Gasquet won in straight sets), there were no seats here as you can see in the photo below. This was the main difference from my previous visits, where I found that smaller matches generally were not well attended. Now you better arrive well before the match you want to see if you want to sit in a good location. I also noticed that many of the fans seem to be tourists are not accustomed to tennis etiquette, including a couple of boneheads who walked across a court that was not in use.

The next day I returned with my buddy Andrew, who drove up from Philadelphia. After a stop at Mikkeler in Citi Field, we found someone who got us grounds passes for $50, half of face value. I was really only interested in the match between #5 seed Kevin Anderson and Canadian Denis Shapovalov, seeded 28th. That was the last match on Armstrong for the day session, so with a couple of hours to wait, we went to the grandstand, which was ridiculously crowded for a match between #9 Dominic Thiem and American Taylor Fritz. After watching a couple of games, we made our way over to Court 5, where a women's doubles match was taking place. Second seeds Timea Babos and Kristina Mladenovic (below) were up against Americans Nicole Gibbs and Sabrina Santamaria. Doubles matches are not as popular as singles, so we were able to get a first row bench near the corner, which is a fantastic angle to watch serves coming in. Babos/Mladenovic won 6-0, 6-2 and as they went to the net for the handshake, sent the balls back in our direction. Andrew picked one up for his kids, a nice souvenir of his trip.

With that done, we went to Armstrong. Along the way, I found a ticket for the lower level that allowed us to sit close for the first couple of sets. Shapovalov (below) won the first set, but lost the next two, after which I had to leave. After forcing a 5th set, the Canadian lost, but he is only 19 and will be a force to be reckoned with in the future.

The following week, I went to see some quarterfinal action at Arthur Ashe Stadium. My wife is a fan of Juan Del Potro (seeded 3rd), so she planned to come later to see his match against John Isner (11th). I went early and watched as defending champion Sloane Stephens (3) was upset by Anastasija Sevastova (19). After that, I again found a ticket on the ground for Armstrong, this one in the front row. Because the Open uses mobile ticketing, fans are handed a seat locator to show to ushers. This is just as important as a hard ticket and so I was able to watch some doubles quarterfinals matches from the front row, including Babos/Mladenovic as they won again on their way to the finals. When my wife arrived, I took over baby duties so did not pay much attention to Del Potro's 4-set victory over Isner.

My final visit was on Thursday, which offered free admission to see all four doubles semifinals. There were wheelchair matches scheduled on Ashe, but due to the extreme heat, they were suspended. This did allow me to get a rare picture of the stadium completely empty.

Below are the seats that regularly go for over $1,000 near the end of the tournament. I hope I can sit here once.

The doubles semifinals were held on Armstrong and despite it being free, few fans were out early. I was hoping to see the Babos/Mladenovic team again, but their match was fourth on the docket. The first match between Lukasz Kubot/Marcelo Melo (7) and Radu Albot/Malek Jaziri took 2:46 with what seemed like an infinite number of deuces, with Kubot/Melo winning to advance to the final. I sat behind the baseline in the shade, which I find a better view as you can see the lines clearly and you don't have to move your head back and forth on every shot.

I stayed for the next match, which featured Wimbledon champs #3 Mike Bryan and Jack Sock against #5 Juan Sebastian Cabal/Robert Farah. This was a lot of fun to watch, and when Sock blew a chance at a match point, a third set resulted, extending the match by another 40 minutes. The Americans won that to advance but the entire match took over 2 hours. That's five hours for just two matches, and enough for me. Rather than stay for the women's matches, I headed home with enough tennis to keep me satisfied for another year.

The Controversy

A quick word on the Serena Williams controversy. Having lived in Japan, I pay attention to Japanese players and knew about Naomi Osaka from a couple of years ago. So I was excited to see her in the final. Unfortunately, her win was overshadowed by mistakes made by three people: Serena, her coach, and the umpire.

Mistake one was the coach signaling to Serena, for which the umpire rightly issued a code violation. Serena missed the point about cheating; the rule does not consider whether the player saw the signal, just whether it was made. Tennis should consider punishing the coach by ejecting him from the venue rather than the player for something she did not do. Anyway, that code violation upset Serena, who had been thoroughly outplayed in the first set, and when she double-faulted in the second set, she smashed her racket. This was mistake two and earned Serena a second violation, which is a point penalty. This set her off even more and, unable to control herself, she called the umpire a thief and a liar during a changeover, down 4-3.

This is where the umpire should have let it slide (mistake three). With Osaka leading and Serena clearly off her game, he should have realized that a third code violation and the resulting game penalty would be the dominant story, rather than Osaka's incredible play. Instead, he issued the violation and after a lengthy delay during which Serena talked to tournament officials, Serena served down 5-3 without Osaka serving. Although Serena held, Osaka served out the match and won her first Grand Slam championship. The trophy presentation was marred by boos from the fans and tears from the players.

I don't know if it was sexism on the part of the umpire or not, but it was poor judgment on the part of all three participants that marred the first Grand Slam title by a Japanese. I hope tennis is able to change some of the rules and give the umpires some leeway so a similar incident does not happen again.