Friday, April 30, 2021

Valspar Championship, First Round - April 29, 2021

When I first planned this trip, I had booked a late flight back Thursday in the anticipation of seeing the Rays hosting the Athletics in an afternoon tilt. Then I checked rental car prices and decided that I didn't need to see the Rays game after all, as cars were going for about $100 a day. I could take a rideshare to Dunedin and back for less than that, but would need a car to store my bag if I went to St. Petersburg, so I changed my flight to the morning. Then my buddy Andrew announced he was coming down at the same time. He also mentioned that the PGA Tour would be stopping in the Tampa Bay area starting Thursday and he would be renting a car. So I switched my flight to the afternoon to allow for some time at the golf. As it turned out, rental car prices dropped significantly as well, so I ended up renting the car at $40 per day. After watching the Jays split with Washington over the previous two days, we woke early on Thursday and drove to Palm Harbor, home of Innisbrook Golf Resort. Their Copperhead Course is the site of the Valspar Championship, an annual event on the PGA Tour. Valspar is a paint company, hence the slogan "The Most Colorful PGA Tour Tournament in the World". Perhaps they could brighten up the porta potty behind the welcome sign.

Parking is $15 but you need to buy a pass in advance, which we did not do, so we asked somebody living nearby if we could use his driveway and he let us park in front of his house. It was about a 10-minute walk to the entrance, where we could not find anyone with extras, so we purchased tickets online for $60. We could have just walked in but there was a rather intimidating cop standing guard. After we had bought the tickets, he told us he wouldn't have stopped us. Oh well. 

We walked in Gate 4 at the bottom of the map above, which allowed us to watch action at the first seven holes in the limited time we had. The course is par 71 for the tournament and has a few difficult holes.

The course is picturesque, with plenty of shaded spots to avoid the sun. Despite the early hour, it was already steaming hot and I would not have wanted to spend the whole day here. Andrew spent his time in the shaded concession area, which had a view of a couple of greens and a couple of tee boxes, so I wandered the course alone.

There are scoreboards dotted around that show the players at that particular hole. My golf knowledge is very weak and I only recognized the names about 20% of the players that I saw, although many of the bigger stars were teeing off later such as world #1 Dustin Johnson.

As mentioned, Valspar is a paint and coating concern, and as an advertising bit, they had a comprehensive display of their various shades of paint that looked more like a contemporary art installation. 

Each pairing had three players, and their caddies each wore a different colour bib. The PGA recently introduced a Player Impact Program (PIP) that rewards golfers who positively engage fans through social media, so caddies were allowed to wear anything on their bib, and some players had their Twitter handle, while others had their nickname, such as Big Mike for Michael Visacki, making his PGA debut at the tournament. Sadly, he missed the cut.

As for recognizable players, that is Bubba Watson above, who was paired with J.B. Holmes, showing that the tournament organizers have a sense of literary humour. Canadian Corey Conners rounded out the threesome, with all three making the cut, Holmes just barely at the number of 1 under.

Above is two-time defending champ Paul Casey putting. He also made the cut, finishing the second round at 3 under.

As I was about the leave the course, I saw Hunter Mahan on the fourth hole with a shot out of the rough. I stopped to take a picture and was shocked as he whiffed, something that rarely happens at this level. I wasn't sure I had actually seen a whiff, and other fans nearby were equally perplexed. Was it a shot? In my mind, there was no doubt that he had intended to hit the ball, and it definitely was a stroke, but the official score indicated that the ball moved one inch, so it might technically not have been a whiff. There was no coverage of this afterwards, which I found surprising. Mahan ended up double bogeying the hole and was even after the first round, but he had a tough Friday and missed the cut.

With that rarity witnessed, I picked up Andrew and we headed to the airport. By the time I got home five hours later, there were still golfers on the course finishing up their rounds. It was a quick visit but one that I will not soon forget. I don't attend golf much because it rarely works out with my other quests, but I will be looking to add some other courses to my list in the future, and might actually spend the day.


The tournament was won by Sam Burns, who finished 17 under par and took home his first PGA Tour title.



Thursday, April 29, 2021

Washington Nationals at Toronto Blue Jays - April 27-28, 2021

With the Canadian border still closed to all non-essential travel (with the shitshow that Canada has become, this closure is benefiting the United States for the first time), the Toronto Blue Jays are forced to play elsewhere again this season. For the first two months of the campaign they are using TD Ballpark, their spring training home in Dunedin. Of course, as with any temporary Club 123 venue, I needed to see a game or two there, especially with the Blue Jays the home team. With limited series to choose from, I picked a two-tilt midweek set against Washington and flew to Tampa on Tuesday. Dunedin is about 30 minutes west of the airport, and you can get there without paying any tolls. You will know you have arrived when you see all the Blue Jays banners along the lampposts.

After a brief stop at my hotel to change, I met fellow sports traveler Andrew at House of Beer, a large pub a few blocks away from the ballpark. After a couple of drinks and a pizza from nearby Tony's, we strolled along the Pinellas Trail (below), a biking/hiking path that runs nearly 50 miles from Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg and passes right beside the ballpark. If you are driving, there is no parking at the venue, but plenty of private lots along the way, including at the First Presbyterian Church, where you donate $5-10 and get a rickshaw ride to the stadium.

I last visited here for a Florida State League game in 2012 when it was known as Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, and the place has undergone significant improvements in the meantime, including the name. Every aspect of the stadium has been upgraded, first during a massive renovation that was completed in 2019, and then for the regular season games this year. It is truly a beautiful ballpark, particularly as you approach, with palm trees along the path.

With capacity normally at 8,500, this would be an intimate place to see a Major League Baseball game, but restrictions limit it to about 1,500 fans, something that makes an experience here surreal. For the second game, I arrived about 90 minutes before first pitch and had the place mostly to myself, as you can see in many of the photos.

The Jays Store is open though on game days, you have to enter the ballpark first. I have plenty of Jays gear and did not bother to buy any more on this trip.

Inside, concourses are still relatively small, but again with so few fans, there is no problem getting around. The Blue Jay logo is omnipresent.

These were taken about an hour before an actual MLB game was to be played; there are almost no fans in the ballpark yet. A unique experience to be sure.

Concessions are typical, with a hot dog going for $4.75. Upscale offerings include a chicken Caesar wrap at $9.75. Contactless payments are encouraged, but cash is still accepted. 

For those who like to have a wobbly pop or two, the bar on the concourse past first base has a good selection of 16-ounce cans for $11 each. This includes Blue Point's Imperial Sunshine, brewed on Long Island, which has a 9.6% ABV, the highest I have seen at any sporting event. Craft beer is also available on draft at a couple of other stands.

Inside the seating bowl, cutouts dominate the scene. I assume these are mostly Canadians who are unable to travel, so I was glad to represent them on this trip. You can see the grey bars below the seats; these are to prevent them from being used and are much more effective than the snap ties you see in most other venues.

Some of the seats have cutouts directly in front of them, which can be a bit disconcerting at times. 

The entire seating bowl is protected by netting, so neither fans nor cutouts need to be worried about line drives. Plenty of foul balls exit the stadium and there are ball hawks outside who spend the first few innings chasing them down.

Below, you can see how the sun is behind first base around an hour before the 7:07 start. Games were originally slated for 6:37, but the sun was actually blinding infielders, so start times were moved thirty minutes later. Then in one of the games I attended, Jays third baseman Joe Panik lost a grounder in the sun in the early going, so the games were again moved another half hour later for the upcoming series. Fortunately, House of Beer is open until 3 in the morning.

There are special seating areas in the corners and above the outfield fence, such as the WestJet Flight Deck, but you need a ticket to enter those or to do a complete circuit of the ballpark.

As I did not have such a ticket, I only have a picture of the Flight Deck below. There are also seats below the scoreboard to the left of the photo, again without a ticket, you cannot access this area.

From the other corner, which is next to Eddie's Bar, another area that requires a ticket but seemed closed on this evening anyway.

There are also suites above the seating bowl, but they seem to have been repurposed for media and baseball operations people.

The scoreboard is above left center field and has some good detail and trivia during the game.

Tickets are not cheap here, as you would expect, with seats behind the plate going for $74, while those sections well down the lines are around $40. This has certainly kept the games from selling out, though locals also have Spring Training and so are used to seeing major league ball up close.

For day games, the free sunscreen would be very helpful, and should be a mainstay at all outdoor ballparks in the south. 

This is the view from my seat behind the Jays dugout. I had the same seat for both games courtesy of Sherry, another ballpark chaser who lives in Dunedin, and it was as close to heaven as you can get. I also had the pleasure of sitting with David and Paul, two brothers who share my love of sports travel. 

Overall, this was a wonderful trip and I was glad not to be stuck in Canada like my friends and family. The Jays will only play here until the end of May, at which time they will move to Buffalo. Of course, I'll be seeing them there as well. The schedule should be confirmed shortly and I'll be booking flights and hotels shortly thereafter. And with the big boys in Buffalo, the AAA Bisons will play in Trenton, a short train ride away. I will be sure to get to some games there as well. It will be a busy summer with all the new minor league parks as well, so check back often for updates.

The Games

The opener saw Max Scherzer taking the hill for Washington, while Trent Thornton (tossing below to Trea Turner in a battle of TTs) was the Jays option. Things looked bleak early when Trea hit two taters off Trent to give the Nats a 2-0 lead, and Yadiel Hernández immediately greeted reliever Tommy Milone with another solo shot. 

But the Jays came to life in the bottom of the third with two singles and a walk that brought Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to the plate (below) and he shocked Scherzer with a massive grand slam that gave Toronto the sudden lead. They added two more in the fourth and in the fifth, Guerrero again homered off Scherzer to make it 7-3. The Nats got two back in the 7th on a Ryan Zimmerman dinger off Joel Payamps, but Guerrero was on fire and hit his third round-tripper of the game in the bottom half off Kyle Finnegan to regain the four-run advantage. The Jays bullpen held Washington off the board to make the final 9-5 (what a way to make a living). I was too excited to take a picture of the scoreboard, but it was a historic night for the Blue Jays and one of the greatest games I have seen.

The highlight of the second game was the starting lineup. There you see George Springer at the top of the batting order, his first regular season game as a Blue Jay.

Unfortunately, he went 0-4 and starter Steven Matz was blasted by the Nats bats in a game that was flat for this cat. No need for more details than that.

The final was 8-2 Washington as they earned a split of the series, and my lack of excitement allowed me to snap a shot of the scoreboard.

I will see the two games in Washington as well, and hope for a better result then.


Dunedin is a sleepy town, with few spots open after the game, other than the aforementioned House of Beer. But beforehand, there are several craft breweries within a few minutes walk that are well worth visiting. A seven-game homestand would be an appropriate amount of time to stay here, and they have those in the minors, so I am sure I will return at some point.



Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Maryland Black Bears 1 at Danbury Jr. Hat Tricks 0 (NAHL) - April 26, 2021

There are several junior hockey leagues in North America, but their rankings between Canada and the U.S. are not clearly defined. Up north, they have Major Junior (OHL, QMJHL, WHL) and then all of the Junior A leagues, while down here there are three leagues that are ranked in tiers. The top one is the United States Hockey League with 14 teams based in the Midwest. Below that is the Tier 2 North American Hockey League, which has 23 clubs in four divisions, including a southern one with teams in Texas, Louisiana, and New Mexico. The NAHL also operates a Tier 3 league with 32 squads, including one in nearby Danbury. I didn't really want to travel to see this relatively low level of hockey, but this season, the owners acquired a team in the Tier 2 league, and so I finally decided to make the short trip to Hat City.

You can take a MetroNorth train to Danbury from Grand Central, transferring at South Norwalk, but they only run every three hours, so the game and train schedules have to line up, which they rarely do. Only when a couple of games were rescheduled for 1 pm on a weekday could I make the trip, taking a train that reached Danbury at 1:11. The Danbury Arena is right next to the train station, so I only missed a few minutes of the game.

Tickets are $17 at the door and you get a badge that you are supposed to wear, but with so few fans, that really wasn't necessary. There are two rinks in the complex, with the game taking place at the larger Patriot Arena (the other one is Liberty, both are named for surrounding streets). On one side of the rink are the seats, which are just flat bleachers; across the way is a mezzanine that is closed to fans but would provide a unique view of the game as it hangs right above the boards.

There is a small video board at one end of the rink that shows the game, and simple scoreboards at both ends. You can stand at the glass as you can see the gentleman above, and that allows for some interesting views such as the one below.

Several teams from different leagues have called Danbury home, and there are a few banners in their honour. Corey Fulton, most famous as the other fighter when Don Sanderson died after hitting his head on the ice in 2008, played two seasons with the Federal Hockey League's Whalers a decade ago. The Connecticut Whale of the NWHL also play here, as do the professional Hat Tricks of the FHL, co-owned by Colton Orr, who once tossed a puck to me in Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, the team opted out of the league this season due to the pandemic, but they are allowing their junior teams to play.

There is also a banner from the New York Rangers, who have an official affiliation with the venue. It used to be called the Danbury Ice Arena, but they seem to have removed Ice from the official appellation.

The concourse includes a large arcade and a concession stand that has draft beer, but both were closed due to the pandemic. There were perhaps 20 people in the stands, not surprising given the odd game time. It did mean that you could hear the officials, which was interesting at times.

The Maryland Black Bears, lying fourth in the six-team division (Danbury is last) were the visitors and riding a 10-game points streak (8-0-2). They were clearly the superior team in the first period, but they could not solve Hat Tricks goalie Andrew Pichora (above).

Early in the second, there was a shot from the side boards and Pichora couldn't quite cover the puck, allowing Branden Piku to poke it home from the side of the net. 

Danbury had few good chances and when they did, Michael Morelli was equal to the task, sporting a quick glove on a couple of occasions. Piku's marker held up as the Black Bears won 1-0 and Morelli earned his second shutout of the season. You can see the Hat Tricks recognizing his achievement by forming a big zero at center ice after the game.

There was one incident that I found a bit unnerving. Midway through the game, Pichora was out to play the puck as Maryland's Conor Cole (from Newfoundland) was chasing it. Cole slipped and upended Pichora before sliding into the boards, slamming his head against them quite hard. He was obviously dazed and should have gone straight to the dressing room, but he had to serve two minutes for goaltender interference first. He did not return to the game and did not play in the following game on Tuesday, suggesting he received a concussion on the play. I was surprised that nobody noticed this at the time and he was sent to the penalty box first. Update: he did play on Friday, so he was not seriously injured.

This was not a very entertaining game, but it went by quickly, taking just over two hours. Most of the players are 19 or 20, so they don't have much of a future in the sport. Based on what I saw, this level of hockey is below Junior A in Canada, but then again, I have only seen a couple of games there too. At some point, I hope to see a USHL game as well to compare. 


If you don't watch John Oliver, you might have missed how he insulted Danbury last year and was quickly taken to task by several residents, including the Hat Tricks. He also was rewarded with having a sewer plant named after him. Well worth catching up if you have not seen these clips.



Friday, April 9, 2021

Toronto Blue Jays at Texas Rangers - April 6-7, 2021

When I visited Globe Life Field for the World Series last year, I was not that impressed. Yahoo Sports even published an article about my thoughts that angered a lot of Rangers fans. So I was eager to get back and see how the ballpark fared with the home team on the field. 

A couple of weeks ago, the Rangers announced the venue would be open to 100% capacity, upsetting COVID scolds worldwide, who overlooked the fact that cases have been dropping in Texas since they removed the mask mandate over a month ago. Never let reality get in the way of a good whinge. Anyway, I had to visit to see the Blue Jays, and the schedule maker wasn't kind, having them open the ballpark for the season. Before the capacity restrictions were lifted, tickets to the home opener were rather expensive, so I decided to just visit for the final two games of the series. I flew in to DFW on Tuesday afternoon and got the airport shuttle to La Quinta Inn near Six Flags. This is my preferred hotel when visiting Arlington as you get a free ride to and from the airport and it is walking distance to the stadiums (which are also served by the shuttle). Considering a rideshare from the airport is $25-30 and rental cars are not cheap either, this is a good way to save some cash for the games. The view from my room is below, with all three venues in the distance, along with Six Flags in the foreground.

I headed over around 90 minutes before game time as I wanted to have time to tour the ballpark again. I entered via the northeast gate, where I saw this glove sculpture, which may not have been here last year.

This is the northeast entrance, which has a box office next to it. Hard tickets are given out here, as are pocket schedules. Can't imagine what the fearmongers would say about that!

Upon entering, you can look down upon the main concourse (below). Note the entrance from Texas Live! is to the right. From here, take an escalator up to the upper concourse. 

There are seats up here that may rival those in Coors Field as the farthest from home plate in all of baseball. 

I did the walk around again, stopping to take a shot from behind home plate. You can see those far away seats (Section 238 and 239) in the distance below.

My plan for the first game was to get the cheapest ticket at $9 and stand at various locations. That ticket is for Section 325 above right field; the panorama view from the seat is below, with the Canadian flag right in the middle. 

Of course, I did not sit here, moving to a standing area on the 100 level near home plate (view below). What surprised me was that you were not supposed to stand here for social distancing purposes, even though the stadium was opened to 100% capacity (except for three sections in the 200 level, which were for those who wished to maintain social distance). As you can see, there is nobody in front of me, while those in the seats are certainly not socially distanced from strangers.

Still, security let me stand here with my scorebook on another railing for a few innings, and then I was finally asked to leave. I just moved to another standing area, and stood there for about an inning before another security guard, seeing me scoring, ushered me to a seat in 104, where I remained for the rest of the game (view below). Attendance for this one was 18,585 (about 46% of capacity) and having so many home fans made it so much more enjoyable to witness a game here. The World Series was in the fall, it was dark, there were mostly Dodger fans and pandemic pessimism was at a high. With the worst behind us and Texas firmly in the lead of returning to normalcy, this was a welcome change from the games I attended in New York over the weekend. Fans were excited to be back at the ballpark and the Jays gave them another reason to be happy.

Tanner Roark started for Toronto and gave up many home runs and the Jays lost 7-4. The only saving grace was the game took just 2:33, limiting my misery. The scoreboard shot is to show you the level of detail presented; it is very impressive and one of the best in the business.

The next day was an afternoon game and I wanted to splurge and sit in the good seats. One of the biggest problems with Globe Life Field is that the sections closest to the field are not accessible unless you have a ticket for one of those sections. So I picked up another $9 seat to get into the ballpark early and take a few shots with the roof open.

It was a beautiful afternoon, with the temperature around 25, no humidity, and clear skies. Those clouds in the shot above had cleared away by the time the game started. And this is where the ballpark really stood out. It is so, so much better with the roof open. Of course, this is true for any stadium with a retractable roof, but I found the difference here to be remarkable, almost like a different venue.

Those lower outfield seats start in the shade but the sun eventually gets to them too. If you want to avoid any risk of sunburn, those $9 seats above the foul pole will keep you safe, or any upper deck seats in the infield. The upper level seats above right field are the All You Can Eat sections should you be the type who can stomach unlimited stadium food.

The shot above is from left field. The sun will move over these seats as the game progresses, so most sections will see a combination of sun and shade. As it gets hotter during the summer, it might be unpleasant in the sun, but on this day, it was heaven. Add in the fact that it was dollar dog day and the Jays were sending ace Hyun Jin Ryu to the mound, and I was pretty pumped for the afternoon. Now, I had to watch tickets on StubHub and when a single seat in the club dropped into my price range, I picked it up. I then took the escalator down to The District, which is what they call the lower sections here.

On the way down the escalator, you will see some cool program covers, including one showing old Arlington Stadium, a place I heard about when I was young but never had a chance to visit.

The concourse here is completely closed to the field, mainly because it is also how you get to the suites. 

There are a few displays worth checking out along the concourse, including a couple describing events at the two previous stadiums, such as Adrian Beltre's 3000th hit and a 107-degree game at Globe Life Park.

It is important to realize that both premium and regular seats are part of The District. The non-premium offerings are either Corner Boxes or Dugout Lounges, and with those, you have to buy your food from one of the many concession stands along the inner concourse. If you have a club seat, you will gain access to at least one of the private areas. I had a First Base Club seat that allowed me into the StubHub Club (below).

There is a buffet here that includes prime rib and other delectables, as well as free beer and wine. Along the back wall is a cool design featuring silver baseballs (below). I enjoyed a quick lunch and then brought a beer to my seat for the game. Food cannot be brought out, but you can order from your seat through an app, which I did not bother to download. Beer and soft drinks are also free in your seat from vendors who stand in the walkway between the upper and lower seating levels. Well worth it for one game.

Below is my view from Section 16. You can buy tickets directly from the Rangers for any of these sections, but I suggest using the secondary market and saving a bundle. With gates opening two hours before first pitch, you can buy the $9 seats, enter, tour, and then wait for prices to drop for the club seats.

Overall, attending these two games really improved my opinion of Globe Life Field. As you would expect, home fans attending in the spring made this much better than neutral fans in the fall, despite that being the World Series. If you do go, try to get both an evening and an afternoon game and hope for the roof to be open for at least one of those as the experience is quite different.

As for the game, Ryu, pitching in the stadium where his former team won it all, started and was very good, giving up a solo homer to Nick Solak and a bloop RBI single to Leody Taveras in 7 innings. Sadly, Texas starter Kyle Gibson was even better, tossing 6 shutout frames. The Jays did get an 8th-inning homer from Marcus Semien (batting above) but Rowdy Tellez, in the midst of a horrible season-opening slump (0/16) struck out with the tying run on base to end the game. This one also took a crisp 2:33, with only one walk between the two teams. Other than the result, it was an excellent game to watch up close.

With these two losses, the Jays dropped to 37-42 when I see them on the road for the first time in that ballpark. I have nine more games this season to see them (two each in Dunedin, Buffalo, and Washington; three is Seattle) and they need to go 7-2 to get back to .500. Given their less than impressive start, it could be tough.


The next game at Globe Life Field was the first Padre no-hitter in history. California teams seem to like this place.

Next Up

A quick trip to Philadelphia next weekend as both the Flyers and Phillies play both days at different times, allowing for back-to-back two-sport doubleheaders. I won't see all those games, but hope to see one of each team, though Phillies tickets are tough to get.

Then it is back to seeing the Blue Jays on the road, except they will be at home in Dunedin for two against the Nationals. As always, check back for recaps after the event.