Thursday, December 24, 2020

New Orleans Pelicans 113 at Toronto Raptors 99 - December 23, 2020

When it was announced that the Toronto Raptors would be playing the first half of the NBA season in Tampa, I immediately began making plans to attend at least one game. Tickets went on sale last week with Raptors season-ticket members getting first dibs at a pre-sale, which required a code. I guessed the code (it wasn't very difficult) and was able to pick up a pair of very good seats for the opener against New Orleans. Mark, a fellow member of Club 123 who resides in Georgia, agreed to join me so I didn't have to let the other ticket go to waste.

I flew down that afternoon and Mark met me at the airport. We made a brief stop at my downtown hotel and then rode the free streetcar to Amalie Arena, mainly just for the experience, as it saves only a couple of minutes.  

The streetcar drops you off behind the stadium, so we walked up a set of stairs to the front, where a small crowd had gathered. Having seen a few Lightning games here, there was no need to get in early, but I wanted to see how the surrounding area was handling the pandemic, so we got there about 90 minutes before game time. Unfortunately, that was way too early as there was nothing going on, with Thunder Alley completely shut down and no bars in the immediate vicinity.

We did the obligatory walk around to see the Lightning statues on display (Phil Esposito visible above, Dave Andreychuk below), but then we made our way in when gates opened at 6:30. 

Before entering, we had to answer 'no' to 5 questions to ensure that we didn't have COVID, and that was the extent of it. Out of the 3,800 fans (about 18.5% of the 20,500 the place usually holds), I am sure there were at least 100 positive cases, based purely how many asymptomatic carriers there are and Florida's positivity rate. Still, everyone was required to wear a mask and social distancing was enforced in the seating bowl, so I was not particularly worried. By now, it is apparent that the virus is primarily transmitted in confined spaces where you spend a long period of time, so by avoiding such spaces, you should be fine.

Once inside, I did a quick lap around the concourse, sad to see that World of Beer was closed along with many other concessions. There was one concession offering Raptors Poutine for $10, but it came with waffle fries, so that was a hard pass. I picked up a beef empanada and that was my dinner.

There are obviously no displays for the Raptors, but the Lightning have a case of replica trophies, which will see some additions when the NHL season opens next month. No NBA trophy here for the Raptors title unfortunately. At least not yet, I am sure they could squeeze one in next to the two Stanley Cups that will be sitting here.

At least the championship banner is on display, though smaller than those Lightning retired numbers. 

The entertainment was straight from a Raptors home game, with some Tampa touches such as on the scoreboard below. Amalie Arena is just north of Hillsborough Bay, so it works on that level. Note that the word North is printed along the sideline in 18 different languages. There were no cheerleaders, although Raptor was in the house, but limited to an area in the club section, with performances shown on the huge scoreboard. There was also piped-in crowd noise, which was a first for me. I found it a bit odd because it is just one person's opinion of whether the play was worth a button push or not, and sometimes that person was a bit too generous.

Our seats were in Row J facing the Pelicans bench, but the first 7 rows of each section were covered by tarp to prevent fans from getting too close, as you can see above. This was my best NBA seat since I saw Grizzlies first game in Portland back in 1995. The court was also bereft of sideline seats; there were a few in each end zone, but they seemed to be for media or guests. If you do go, avoid the seats down low behind the baskets as they are too far away from the action. 

There isn't much else to say here, as you would expect for a venue hosting a team temporarily in the middle of a pandemic. There is no home-court advantage and that could hamper the Raptors, who are used to an incredible level of support at Scotiabank Arena. If you are a stadium traveler, you have a few months to see this unique NBA venue, but I would suggest going as soon as possible, before more players follow in James Harden's footsteps. 

Update: Too late! With COVID cases spiking after the holidays, Amalie Arena announced that fans would not be allowed to attend games until February. The Raptors only had three home games in front of fans, so I am glad I went when I did.

The Game

It was opening night after just three pre-season games, and both teams had undergone some significant lineup changes since the previous campaign ended just over two months ago. As you would expect, there was a lot of sloppy play early with 13 combined turnovers in the first quarter, which ended with Toronto up 26-23.

The second quarter saw the Pelicans attempt only 3 shots from inside the paint (making 2) while going 7/14 from long range. The Raptors were 8/14 from downtown but just 3/10 from inside the arc and went to the half leading 57-50.

Toronto started quickly in the third period, sinking 5 close-range shots to take a 67-56 lead. Then they decided to start jacking treys, and things fell apart. They ended up going 0/10 in the quarter (Kyle Lowry missing below) while New Orleans went 7/8 in outscoring the Raptors 38-22 to take control. 

The final frame saw Toronto get within 5 after Norman Powell knocked down some rare free throws (they had only 12 attempts on the night) but the Pelicans responded with a 14-5 run over the next five minutes as Toronto remained cold from distance. They went 1/7 over their next few possessions and New Orleans was able to run out the game, finishing with a decisive 113-99 win. New Orleans only managed to sink 10 of 20 from the charity stripe, which kept the score from being a complete embarrassment.

Brandon Ingram (driving below) was the star, falling just a rebound short of a triple double at 24-9-11, while JJ Redick was 6/11 from beyond the arc. Pascal Siakam (above, with the ball in his left hand and a Ball on his right hand) led the Raptors with 20 points.

There were 44 total turnovers, not surprising given the circumstances. The refs were quite harsh away from the ball, whistling 39 fouls, but only 32 free throws were taken. In the pivotal third quarter, they only called four fouls. 

The most interesting stat to me was the difference in three-point percentage between the two baskets. The one closer to me seemed a bit off and the teams combined to shoot 11/44 at that end, while hitting 22 of 44 at the other end. The NBA may want to double-check that basket before the Raptors host the Knicks on New Year's Eve.

Notes

This was the third time that I had seen a Toronto home game on the road. The first was the Blue Jays in Washington, where I watched four innings from a hotel across the street back in May; the second was TFC in Hartford.

I flew Southwest down and was happy to get Lone Star One, the aircraft with the Texas livery. I was not able to get a good picture unfortunately, snapping the one below on the train to the main terminal.

Next Up

That's it for 2020. The first few months of 2021 are expected to be difficult as the second COVID wave passes, but by April, we should be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, with vaccinations proceeding apace. I hope to visit nine new minor league ballparks this summer, plus the three NFL teams that opened stadiums this season, as well as the Seattle Kraken in the fall. I'm sure I will find other things to see in the meantime, so check back on occasion.

Merry Christmas everybody!

Best,

Sean


Friday, December 11, 2020

Making Sense of the Major Changes to the Minor Leagues

Last year, MLB proposed major changes to the minor league system after the 2020 season. It took just over a year, but those changes have finally been announced. There are some small differences between the original proposals and the final decision, but for the most part, what was mooted has come to pass. It is difficult to understand everything that is happening, so this post will serve as a way to make sense of the seismic activity that has shaken minor league baseball. 

First, the number of affiliated minor league teams has dropped from 160 to 120. Three new franchises that were previously in independent ball (St. Paul, Somerset, and Sugar Land) have been added, so that means 43 clubs lost their affiliation. Some have already agreed to be part of new leagues, while others have folded, and many are still considering their future. Meanwhile, each major league team now has exactly 4 minor league affiliates - one each at AAA, AA, A+, and A. 

In a disappointing move, MLB has eliminated the leagues altogether. At each level there are simply two or three geographical circuits further divided into geographical divisions. For example, AAA East with 20 teams divided into Midwest, Northeast and Southeast; and AAA West with 10 clubs in East and West divisions. Expect these to be sponsored at some point in the near future.

Now I will try to summarize the changes by level, without looking at affiliations. You will need some understanding of how the leagues looked before this to appreciate it.

AAA

East: Essentially the old International League, with Jacksonville jumping up from AA and St. Paul joining, while Iowa, Omaha, Memphis, and Nashville come over from the old PCL.

West: The remaining 9 teams from the PCL plus Sugar Land, with San Antonio and Wichita dropping to AA, and Fresno going all the way down to A.

AA

Northeast: The erstwhile Eastern League loses Trenton to the MLB Draft League with Somerset replacing them as the Yankees affiliate. Still 12 teams here.

South: The former Southern League sees Jacksonville jump to AAA, while the Jackson Generals are no longer affiliated, so 8 teams are left.

Central: The old Texas League welcomes the Wichita Wind Surge and San Antonio Missions from AAA to make 10 teams. Interestingly, Wichita never played a AAA game, having moved from New Orleans for the 2020 season, while San Antonio had one campaign as the top affiliate for Milwaukee.

High A

East: A 12-team combination of clubs mostly from the Carolina and New York-Penn Leagues. The Frederick Keys move to the MLB Draft League and the Fredericksburg Nationals fall to Low A, while Bowling Green comes over from the Midwest League.  Aberdeen, Brooklyn, Hudson Valley and Jersey Shore (rebranded from Lakewood) are all that are left from the NYPL.

Central: The Midwest league jumps from Low A but loses Burlington, Clinton, and Kane County, while Bowling Green moves to the East. There are now 12 teams in this circuit.

West: Huge change here as the Northwest League goes from short-season to High A. Boise leaves to join the Pioneer League, while Salem-Keizer is left out. The other 6 teams remain, including Vancouver.

Low A

East: The South Atlantic League and Carolina League combine 12 of their teams to form this circuit.

Southeast: The former Florida State League falls from High A and dumps the Fire Frogs and Charlotte, leaving 10 clubs.

West: The California League falls from High A to Low A and loses Lancaster, who are replaced by Fresno dropping from AAA, keeping this at 8 teams.

Left Out

For those 43 clubs that did not retain affiliation, there are eight outcomes as of this writing: folded, Pioneer League, Appalachian League, MLB Draft League, independent league, collegiate wood bat league, a new league, and still looking for options.

Folded (5): Staten Island (the ballpark will host an Atlantic League team in 2022 under different ownership), Charlotte Stone Crabs, Florida Fire Frogs, Hagerstown, Lancaster

Pioneer League (9): This is now a collegiate wood bat league with the same franchises along with Boise. Orem has moved to Windsor, Colorado and is now the Northern Colorado Owlz, though they will sit out 2021 due to facilities issues.

Appalachian League (10): This is also a collegiate wood bat league with the same franchises. 

MLB Draft League (6): A new league that will highlight top draft-eligible prospects. Frederick, Mahoning Valley, State College, Trenton, West Virginia Black Bears, and Williamsport comprise the circuit.

Independent League (4): Kane County (American Association), Lexington (Atlantic League), Tri-City Valley Cats (Frontier League), West Virginia Power (Atlantic League)

Collegiate Wood Bat Leagues (6): Auburn and Batavia (Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League),  Burlington Bees and Clinton  (Prospect League), Norwich and Vermont (Futures Collegiate Baseball League)

New Leagues (1): Salem-Keizer (Mavericks Independent Baseball League

Still Looking (2): Jackson (though hosted Winnipeg Goldeyes for part of 2021), Lowell

Ultimately, I think those final two franchises still looking will find something in 2022. As well, MLB will expand to 32 teams soon in an attempt to generate some revenue after the pandemic, which means eight new minor league clubs in the not too distant future. And more trips for me.

Notes

With all these changes, there are nine new stadiums to visit for completist travelers such as myself. Four of these were scheduled to open in 2020 (Wichita, Rocket City, Fredericksburg, Kannapolis); two are new this year (Beloit, Worcester), and the three coming over from Indy ball. I have been to Somerset but will revisit as it is not far away at all, so it will be a busy summer, assuming that the worst of the pandemic is behind us.

Best,

Sean