Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Georgia Southern Eagles 1 at Charlotte 49ers 3 (NCAA Soccer) - August 29, 2021

After watching the worst team in minor league baseball play like it, I drove over to UNC Charlotte for an evening soccer match. I am always on the lookout for venues I have yet to visit and Transamerica Field was just that, making it more enticing than an evening ballgame at the Charlotte Knights. I had seen college hoops here as part of a tripleheader in early 2019, and was looking forward to my return.

The stadium is part of the Irwin Belk Track and Field Center (entrance above) and is located in the middle of campus. It is possible to take the Lynx light rail system from downtown Charlotte all the way out here, but I can't imagine too many fans doing that, since there is little traffic and plenty of free parking on campus, at least on a Sunday evening.

When you get to the front of the building, the box office is to the right of the main entrance (above). On this night there was a doubleheader, with the women taking on Wofford, while the men battled Georgia Southern. You could see both games for $6, a bargain, especially considering that the men were ranked #18 nationally. I skipped the women's game and arrived about 15 minutes before the men kicked off at 7:30.

There are six life-size bronze sculptures of soccer and track athletes, with four of them outside and two more inside. All are made by Richard Hallier, and they are very impressive in their detail.

The stadium is unusual for NCAA soccer in its size. Most venues at this level have a few rows of seats around midfield, but here there are over 20 rows of benches from end to end, separated into two levels. All seats are general admission and you can move around easily. The benches face west, so the setting sun would have been a pain for the women's game at 5, but as the men got started, the sun had disappeared behind the trees in the distance.

Of course, as this is also a track and field venue, there is a large running track that separates the pitch from the fans. So it makes some sense to sit a bit higher to get a view of the entire game.

There is a long walkway that separates the upper and lower levels. The photo below is taken from the south end of the stadium, right near the concession stand, which sells your basic stadium fare along with beer, surprising for a campus venue.

Starting lineups are posted just inside the main entrance, something that I haven't seen for NCAA soccer before.

Once the sun had set, it was a very comfortable evening and I enjoyed the game, which was quite entertaining.

The 49ers wore striped uniforms, while Jokull Blaengsson, the Georgia Southern keeper who hails from Iceland, was trying to resemble the referees. I sat near the top for the first half, which saw the Eagles score a surprising goal at 9:43 (NCAA soccer uses exact times for goals, which I appreciate) when Jacob Green-Pedersen headed a corner into the far netting. Charlotte tied it 25 minutes later when Kameron Lacey made a galloping run down the left flank, crossed to Joe Brito, who turned and fired to beat Blaengsson.

The half ended 1-1 and I used to break to move to the other side and down low in front of the net that Charlotte would be shooting at, figuring that they would dominate the second half. I was right, and most of the action happened right in front of me. The 49ers took the lead just over seven minutes in when Jonathan Nyandjo drove one home from the top of the box after the Eagles failed to clear several times (celebration below). 

Georgia Southern had a couple of good chances but Daniel Kuzemka made two excellent saves to maintain the lead, and with 4:04 to go, Brito got his brace after the Eagles again had trouble getting the ball out of their own box. I snapped the picture below and watched the rest of the game from the top, making a quick getaway when the final whistle blew. A very professional and very brief highlight package can be found here for those interested.

This was a welcome change from the long baseball games I've been seeing at all levels lately. Charlotte were obviously the better team and it will be interesting to see if they can make the tournament in December. The final will be played in nearby Cary, and with Marshall showing last season that a smaller school can win the title, you never know. 

Notes

The 49ers obviously share a sports nickname with San Francisco and I found it interesting that their soccer stadium naming rights are owned by Transamerica, whose Pyramid building is an icon in downtown SF.

Next Up

My minor league catch-up continues in Beloit next week. I'll follow that with the Twins and Royals at Target Field, and then head to Cincinnati for Bearcats football, FC Cincinnati hosting Toronto FC, and the Bengals and Vikings. Check back in a couple of weeks to see how it all went.

Best,

Sean


Monday, August 30, 2021

Lynchburg Hillcats at Kannapolis Cannon Ballers (Low-A East) - August 28-29, 2021

When I first planned all of my minor league trips earlier in the year, this trip to Kannapolis was to be the final one to coincide with my birthday. But Beloit didn't open their park until August, and the game in Sugar Land was rained out, so I couldn't combine the celebrations. Still, it wasn't worth the hassle to change my plans, so off I flew to Charlotte, where I rented a car for the short drive to Kannapolis, about 30 minutes northeast of the airport.

I visited the Intimidators (who were so dubbed after owner Dale Earnhardt's nickname) back in 2015, but the team rebranded to coincide with opening their new stadium, which was planned for last year. Now known as the Cannon Ballers, they play out of Atrium Health Ballpark, which is part of a downtown renewal project that seems to be working quite well already. As I approached along Main Street, I turned onto Vance Street and saw free covered parking. Leaving the garage on West Avenue, I found Old Armor Beer Company next door. After a brief stop to sample some of their wares, I walked across the street to the ballpark, with the view from West Avenue above. There are $5 grass lots on the other side of the park that appeal to more profligate fans, but I found the covered parking to be ideal as it kept the car cool and allowed for a quick getaway afterward.

I got there a few minutes early and gates had yet to open, so I wandered around, noticing the sign above. The stadium is actually used as a public park when there are not games or other events being held, and you can walk around the concourse as much as you like during those hours, while kids can entertain themselves in the play area. The outfield bar is even open!

As I walked along Cannon Baller Way, I stopped at the batting cages that are open to the outside and watched the players taking their cuts before the game. After that, I headed to the box office, which is located in a trailer next to Gate 1 (below). Note the mascot on the trailer below; that is Boomer Baller, a stuntman who retains Earnhardt's trademark moustache in honour of the late driver. You can get a standing room ticket for $10, but I splurged for my special day and got a seat down low for $13. 

And what a ticket! It is beyond frustrating that pro teams use cost as an excuse to shaft their fans when small organizations like this demonstrate what is possible with a little creativity. The main reason teams want to avoid having you use the box office is so they can charge you "convenience" fees for purchasing online; any other excuse is utter bullshit. 

When I entered, I stopped by the Guest Services booth to pick up a copy of Light the Fuse, the rather thin program that I mostly used to protect my ticket. I then began my tour. 

The first thing that caught my eye was the dunk tank, which was manned by somebody who might be famous in the area. This was part of Starry Night, an initiative to raise funds to fight pediatric brain tumors. Lanterns were for sale for $10 and the team wore special uniforms that were auctioned off after the game. I was unaware of any of this at the time however, and so proceeded to move around.

This ballpark follows the template that most new minor league venues use, with picnic areas in the corners, a bar in the outfield, the stadium structure allowing for an open concourse with some drink rails, and suites and a club area above. Gate 1 is the main entrance and leaves you in the right field corner, above a terrace of picnic tables. Turn to your left to see the team store and the wide concourse (below).

The seating bowl is as you would expect at this level, with 15 sections from corner to corner. The three middle sections behind the plate (107-109) are $15, while the rest of the seats are two bucks cheaper. Capacity here is 4,930.

The view from behind the plate with some beautiful buildings in the background.

There are some concourse "suites" for groups that include some fancy office chairs along drink rails. 

There are also some standing drink rails along the lines and one behind the plate that is ideal for an afternoon game as it is shaded, unlike the one in the photo below.

The play area is behind third base and includes a splash pad. Foul balls do occasionally find there way over here, so pay attention if you have an oblivious little one frolicking here.

Down in the left field corner is another picnic terrace.

Looking into the field, you can see the berm and the batter's eye, along with my shadow. Off in the distance to the right is the outfield bar, which has a good selection of craft beer.

For Saturday's game, there was a giant inflatable Boomer, but he was not there on Sunday.

Looking back at the entire stadium structure with the sun setting behind third base. For an afternoon game, the sun shines on much of the seating bowl, so get a seat near the back rows behind the plate if you want to remain in the shade, or just stand on the concourse as I did. There are no ushers checking tickets anyway, so you can move around with ease.

A better look at the shaded outfield bar along with another seating area jutting into the outfield. The dimensions are 325 feet to the left field foul pole, 400 to center, and 315 to right.

A cute touch on the restroom signage.

Concessions are fairly limited in variety, though very affordable. The most expensive item was a corn dog at $6, and a Baller Basket comes with a cheeseburger (or hot dog or plant burger), chips or fries, soft drink or water, and cookie, all for $11. There is a roasted corn stand near Gate 1 that also looked very tempting. The team had some difficulties early in the season with logistics that led to long lines but those have been straightened out. There are still signs telling you how long you have to wait, but for both games I attended, lines moved quickly. Over the two games, I enjoyed a cheeseburger and chicken tenders, each for $5 and each a decent option.

Below is the view from behind section 107, with the scoreboard above left field and the surrounding buildings in the distance, making for a pleasant scene. Note the yellow socks in the on-deck batter, these matched those Starry Night jerseys I mentioned.

Atrium Health Ballpark was voted Best Low-A Ballpark by the readers of Ballpark Digest, and it certainly is an ideal spot to watch a game. The downtown location is great and should get even better as more bars and restaurants open up, and the overall ambience is very relaxing. Unfortunately, the team is terrible this year, as I witnessed in the two contests I attended.

The Games

Kannapolis came in at 30-70, tied with Visalia (Arizona's Low-A West affiliate) for the worst record in minor league baseball. But they were on a 3-game winning streak, so maybe things were looking up. Then again, maybe not. In the first game, Jesus Valles (below sporting the Starry Night jersey) started for Kannapolis and gave up 4 runs in 5.2 innings, including a 2-run homer to Miguel Jerez. His offense could only muster a run, and the bullpen allowed a pair as Lynchburg (Cleveland) won 6-1 in a game that inexplicably lasted 3:11 for a PPM of 1.49, which is a slower pace than many MLB games.

Sadly, Sunday's affair was much worse, as the Hillcats plated 14 runs in the first 5 innings while Kannapolis did little more than strike out, totaling 20 Ks on the afternoon as they were embarrassed 15-0. That's White Sox #11 prospect Bryan Ramos below; he was the only Cannon Baller not to whiff. Well, Kannapolis does start with K after all. This game saw 360 pitches in 3:23, for a much faster pace of 1.77 PPM, its only redeeming quality.

There's the result below. Visalia won both their weekend games so now the Cannon Ballers are officially the worst team in baseball with a month to go. Not that it means anything.

Notes

I lucked out on Sunday as the giveaway was a stadium replica, the only giveaway that I actually collect. 

There was an organist on the concourse for Sunday's game. Known as Greazy Keys, he also plays at Charlotte Checkers games at Bojangles Coliseum and was a welcome addition to the otherwise drab game that unfolded that afternoon. Boomer is the background and also on the organ in a nice display of meta mascot mania.

Best,

Sean


Friday, August 20, 2021

Toronto Blue Jays at Washington Nationals - August 17-18, 2021

My first sports road trip was in June 1986 when some friends and I joined a bus trip to Detroit to see the Jays at Tiger Stadium. That started a lifelong hobby that continues to this day. The internet allowed me to meet many like-minded individuals and inspired by them, I came up with quests such as seeing a game in every Big 4 venue (now known as Club 124) and every minor league ballpark. And harkening back to that first foray 35 years ago, I wanted to see the Blue Jays in every road stadium. I began that quest in earnest in 2008, planning trips from Japan to see the Jays in at least one new ballpark every season. After moving to New York, it became a lot easier and I would see 3-4 road series a year. New ballparks kept popping up, forcing me to extend the deadline, and 2020 didn't help. But finally, this year, I had just three parks left. Until it was announced that the Jays would play in both Dunedin and Buffalo. That meant five trips to see the team, which promised to be a competitive one.

Unfortunately, I ended up with some bad luck on those trips, missing the opener in Texas, which the Jays won, but seeing the following two losses. In Dunedin, they split a pair with the lowly Nationals, and then could take only one of three against the Mariners in Buffalo. I also saw them lose at Citi Field and Fenway. Last week, they managed to salvage the final game of a weekend series at T-Mobile Park in Seattle. Only three wins at Yankee Stadium kept me from being a true jinx, but a 6-10 record is not something I will remember fondly. Still, with the quest finishing in Washington against a Nationals team that had traded away its best players, I had reason to be optimistic. Unfortunately, they also traded Brad Hand to the Blue Jays for Riley Adams.

Anyway, after flying back from Seattle and spending Monday watching the Yankees knock off Ohtani and the Angels, I took a three-hour Acela ride with my family down to the nation's capital. After a quick stop at our hotel, I headed over to Nationals Park. I reviewed the stadium back in 2015 and so won't add anything here. Upon entering, I saw that the Nationals had yet to update the pictures for their newly acquired players. Batting second was Alcides Escobar while Adams was catching and batting eighth. Remember those names.

I happened to check StubHub on my way to the ballpark and found a seat right above the Nationals dugout for $60 plus fees. This seemed like a good deal, and as this was to be a celebratory game, I splurged and was happy with the view (below). My seatmate was also a Jays fan and fellow sports traveler named Howard, and I enjoyed discussing our various journeys over the years. 

Alek Manoah started and the highlight for him was his first major league plate appearance (below). He lasted just three innings, giving up 7 runs (6 earned, with the error his on a wild pickoff attempt), including a 2-run double to Escobar. 

A three-run eighth got the Jays back to within 8-6, but Tayler Saucedo and Rafael Dolis combined to allow four more runs, capped by an Adams homer, as the Nationals romped 12-6. It was at this time that I realized that the Blue Jays are exhausted after a trying year and simply don't have the energy needed to make a playoff run. Simply put, you cannot lose to teams below you if you want to make the postseason.

The next day was a late afternoon game and I bought a cheap ticket at the box office, where I was asked if I had the MLB Ballpark App. Nope, of course not. So I got a hard ticket, paying an extra $3.25 for the privilege.

I wandered around, eventually settling on a marble drink rail beyond first base, which kept me comfortably in the shade. While there, I noticed that the Nationals had three former Expos on their Ring of Honor that lies between the two suite levels. This is quite a nice touch and includes other notables that played with previous incarnations of the Washington Senators, as well as others who contributed to baseball in the city.

Sadly, the Expos did not bring any Canuck luck and the Jays lost this one too, blowing a 5-4 lead with Hand giving up a 3-run homer to Josh Bell followed by a solo shot to Carter Kieboom that officially ended their chances at making the playoffs. A sour note to end my Blue Jays on the Road quest, as they finished with a 43-48 record, rather disappointing given that they were above .500 near the end of 2019. I'll have to wait until baseball expands for the Jays to play in a new road stadium, as it doesn't look like there will be any new ballparks for a while yet.

Update: Yes, the Jays went 18-4 and were back in the playoff hunt, but ultimately they missed out, as I expected. It was the two losses to Seattle and these two to Washington that were the difference in the end, games they needed to win before September (Of course, it could be any two losses, but let me think that the games I attended were meaningful, even in a negative way.)

Notes

Teddy won both Presidents Races.

Next Up

As my minor league catch up continues, I'm heading to North Carolina on the last weekend in August to see the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers, who have opened a new stadium this year. Check back to see what I thought.

Best,

Sean


Monday, August 16, 2021

Toronto Blue Jays at Seattle Mariners - August 13-15, 2021

When I did my 7-month baseball trip in 2001, Seattle was my base as I had friends that lived there and allowed me to stay on several occasions. The trip started there, returned for the All-Star Game, and returned again for the playoffs, which the 116-win Mariners lost in heartbreaking fashion to the Yankees. 

The Mariners haven't been back to the ALCS since then, and I had not returned to Safeco Field (now T-Mobile Park) either. I was waiting for a time when I could see the Blue Jays there, and after having my plans shelved last year, I finally had a weekend where I could fly out and back and see all three games in the series. Remember to get a right side window seat when landing in Seattle for a chance to take some great shots of the ballpark (above). 

From the airport, I took the Link light rail downtown, where I met fellow sports traveler Tike and his family who were in town for the night before a cruise. Tike had purchased seats at the Hit It Here Cafe, a full-service restaurant above right field. With some food credit included in the price, we didn't waste time touring the stadium. Our seats were right next to the windows in the photo above, and we enjoyed a very good meal and a couple of beers, along with a view of the hazy sun setting through the opening in the upper deck. Yes, that is wildfire haze that was hanging over Seattle for the first two days I was there. 

On Saturday, I got to the ballpark early to complete my tour. The Stadium stop on the light rail leaves you just east of the stadium, but I walked along Occidental Avenue, passing by Lumen Field as well as several hot dog vendors and pubs. Pick up your water here as there is no designated driver program inside, with the team currently negotiating a new deal, something I had not heard before. You can see Occidental from the upper level of the ballpark (below), but as you can tell, this picture was actually taken on Sunday when the ocean breeze had cleared out the haze.

If you are walking from downtown, you will first reach the Left Field Gate, where you will see the first of many art pieces that decorate the ballpark.

Most obvious is the 9-foot tall baseball glove, dubbed The Mitt. But look carefully over the gate to see silhouetted players from all positions as well. 

If this is your first visit, do not enter at this gate; instead continue along 1st Avenue (renamed Dave Niehaus Way for this stretch in honour of the Mariners longtime broadcaster who passed away in 2010). You will notice a box office here, but there are better deals on the secondary market, and scalpers have hard tickets. For the second game, I paid $10 to a friendly tout to get in; for the third, I paid $4 on TickPick and found a hard stub after the game.

As you walk along Niehaus Way, you will see the doors have some player photos on them to add a bit of colour.

At the next corner is the Home Plate Gate (above) and this is where you will see two statues of Mariner legends. Of course, Ken Griffey Jr. is one and it is his likeness that sits at the corner. 

Walk half a block east to see Edgar Martinez, the greatest designated hitter in history. I know that might upset a lot of baseball purists, but Martinez would not have had a long career without becoming a DH. 

You can enter here at this gate and look up to see the bat chandelier, another of those aforementioned art pieces.

Walk up the stairs to see the All-Star Game logo. This Midsummer Classic is memorable for Cal Ripken's home run and Tommy Lasorda's tumble after being hit by Vladimir Guerrero's broken bat, not to mention eight Mariners participating.

Although the team has never even made it to the World Series, they have had several stars over the years, and they are enshrined in the team's Hall of Fame, which is located just off the concourse along third base, along with the Baseball Museum of the Pacific Northwest.

It takes about 15 minutes to walk through and learn a bit about local baseball history as well as those who have become Mariner legends. Having lived in Vancouver in the early 90s and then Japan during the Ichiro decade, the Mariners are like my second team and it was nostalgic to relive all of this history, including a display on the All-Star Game.

As you make your way around toward left field, you will see Edgar's Cantina, another restaurant that is just below the hand-operated scoreboard and fills up very early.

This is all part of the unique area known as the Plaza, which is a level below the main concourse. The most intriguing spot here is the bullpen and fans gather here early to get a look at the pitchers, such as Yusei Kikuchi below.

T-Mobile took over the naming rights in 2019 and their signature pink can be found in various spots around the ballpark.

Many fans spend the entire game in the outfield, as the Mariners seem to be one the teams that saw the potential for marketing the social aspect of attending a game. This isn't for me, but I like how it opens up the seating bowl.

As you proceed along the outfield concourse, you will pass by a mural of Niehaus' signature call, also in T-Mobile Pink. 

Go up the stairs to find the statue of Niehaus sitting in his chair, with an empty seat next to him for fans to take photos. 

Take a look at the scorebook, impressive detail here. It is from the 1995 ALDS game where Martinez doubled home Joey Cora and Griffey to send the Mariners to their first championship series. 

This is known as "The Defining Moment" and another artwork can be found on a wall near the left field gate. There are so many other cool pieces that it would take up the entire post to describe them all, so have a look at the link for all the details.

In terms of sightlines, you can watch the game standing on the concourse, although there are no drink rails and fly balls disappear from view due to the overhang. 

I found the ushers were quite relaxed for the most part and allowed fans to sit in the upper rows down the lines, but you had to be a bit more careful around home plate.

Obviously you can sit anywhere in the upper deck, and this was a good place to relax.

For the night games, you can appreciate more pink on the lights atop the retractable roof (above), which was open for all three games, though I did get a picture of it closing before one of the games (below).

Make sure to walk around the upper concourse as well, as there are a few things to see. The Boxscore Bar has snippets of boxscores from key Mariner games, such as the perfect game twirled by Felix Hernandez back in 2012.

There is also an area called the Rooftop Boardwalk that provides views of downtown and Puget Sound.

Above left field you will also find The Trident Deck here, another social area far, far away (view below). For many, the purpose of going to games now is to tell other people that you went to the game rather than actually watching the action, and these places are perfect for them.

Finally, a word on concessions. The variety here is excellent, and if you are a cheapskate they have value options, such as a value hot dog for $4 and a value soda for $3. I ordered one of each and for the soda, was given a super size cup by mistake, but no one noticed and I wasn't going to complain. The hot dog too seemed a lot more substantial than one would expect for that price. I liked Beecher's cheese sandwiches, a lighter option. Note the sign to the left in Japanese, a remnant of when the ballpark would host so many Japanese tourists who had come to see Ichiro.

T-Mobile Park was opened in 1999 and has aged very well in the meantime. It is one of my favourite ballparks after 2001 and I was glad to finally get a chance to revisit and see how things had changed. It is an ideal location and has so much to see that one visit might not be enough.

The Games

The Jays were on a bit of a streak and making a charge to the wild card but that all ended here as they lost the first two games, with the bullpen unable to do their job. First Brad Hand walked Jared Kelenic on four pitches with the bases loaded in the 9th for a 3-2 defeat. Saturday, a 3-2 lead disappeared quickly when Trevor Richards gave up a 3-run homer to Luis Torrens and Kelenic followed with a solo shot as Seattle prevailed 9-3, with Hyun Jin Ryu (below) the hard luck loser. 

Sunday, the Mariners wore their retro uniforms (starter Logan Gilbert below in the duds) and that was the jinx the Jays needed as they knocked Gilbert around early, with Teoscar Hernandez, Randall Grichuk, Corey Dickerson, and Marcus Semien all contributing home runs on the afternoon.

The Jays won 8-3, but there was an interesting curiosity as Bo Bichette struck out in all five of his plate appearances, known as the Platinum Sombrero. He was the first Blue Jay to do so in a 9-inning win, so history in a sense.

Overall, he was the 36th position player to do this in a 9-inning win. Other notable players who did so were Larry Doby in 1948 (the season the Indians won their last World Series) and Reggie Jackson in 1968, a few years before the A's won three in a row. So who knows, maybe this is an omen. Whatever the case, I was just glad the Jays won a game and celebrated at my near-namesake Irish pub, Shawn O'Donnell's, before grabbing an overnight flight that got me back home bright and early so I could watch the Yankees and Angels that night.

More Photos From The Air

Landing in Seattle is always exciting as the approach path takes you right over downtown.

Above is the Space Needle and Climate Pledge Arena, home of the Kraken, where I will finish my Leafs on the Road tour in December.

Downtown Seattle is spectacular.

Lumen Field, home of the Seahawks and Sounders, who had an away game in Portland on Sunday evening, just a bit too far to make it.

Of course, we also flew over the Rockies, which are amazing to view from the air. These days, most passengers are watching something on their phone or the in-flight entertainment system and keep the window shades down, missing one of nature's great shows.

I even saw Maimonides Park, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones, and Coney Island to its right on the way out of JFK.

Notes

I also attended all three Mariners/Blue Jays games in Buffalo too, marking the first time I had seen an entire season series in MLB. Sadly, the Jays went 2-4 against Seattle, hurting their chances at grabbing a wild card spot. 

Next Up

My Blue Jays on the Road quest finally ends as I travel to Washington to see them take on the Nationals. I was rained out there in 2015 and have waited six long years for the interleague rotation to return. Of course, the Jays did play there last year and I watched a few innings from a hotel across the street, but that doesn't count. So check back to see how the Jays responded to a tough weekend in Seattle.

Best,

Sean