Thursday, September 16, 2021

Tampa Bay Rays 3 at Toronto Blue Jays 6 - September 15, 2021

Having seen the Blue Jays in Dunedin and Buffalo, I wanted to complete the home stadium trifecta with a quick visit to Toronto. There were ulterior motives to this trip as well, as I was curious about the entry procedures in advance of bringing my family there. The Blue Jays had one weekday afternoon game left at Rogers Centre, against Tampa Bay on Wednesday at 3:07. As weekday travel is preferable, I bought a morning flight and an evening flight for that day so I could use the same COVID test result to cross the border each way. Of course, two days after the flights were booked, the evening flight was cancelled and there was no flight late enough to ensure that I would see the entire game. I ended up switching to a flight early Thursday morning, which would still allow me to use the same COVID test result with a few hours to spare (the test must be taken within 72 hours of your flight). I got tested on Monday afternoon, and the result was delivered Tuesday morning (negative obviously). I then filled out the ArriveCAN app, which the Canadian government requires for entering the country. With that completed, I headed to the airport Wednesday morning and had no trouble getting on the plane. As we climbed out of LGA, we passed over Yankee Stadium, home of one of the teams fighting the Blue Jays for those wild card spots.

An hour later and we were landing in Toronto, whose skyline is still dominated by the CN Tower.

Getting through immigration in Canada was also quite easy as I had proof of vaccination, proof of a negative test, and had filled out the ArriveCAN app. I then made my way to the UP Express, the train that takes you from the airport right to Union Station. Frequency has been cut to once per half-hour due to the pandemic, and as I had just missed a train, I had time to go to Tim Horton's for a quick lunch. 

Upon reaching Union Station, I walked along the indoor path to Rogers Centre. Capacity here is still limited to 15,000 so there was no waiting at the gates. Proof of vaccination is also required, much like in New York back in April. Despite that and an open roof, masks were also mandated. Though to be fair, most fans were not wearing masks once they were in their seats. Note that the upper deck was closed off, though there were socially distant sections down the lines on the lower level.

With the roof open, you get a great shot of the CN Tower. 

I did a walk around the concourse, finding one concession behind section 137 selling value items, where a hot dog was just $3.50 and a 12-oz can of Bud was $5. I also saw the mural below, which I really appreciated as it featured Alek Manoah, who had just joined the Jays in May. Nice to see the team was not wasting the time during which the stadium could not be used earlier in the season.

There's also a giant blue glove along the upper concourse in center field.

Below is the West Jet Flight Deck, a standing area above centre field that is open to the public.  

I had bought my seat when they went on sale, securing a spot behind the plate for about $70 (view below).

It was Roberto Clemente Day, which meant that any player with a connection to Puerto Rico could wear #21, as well as any player who so requested. That's MVP candidate Vladimir Guerrero Jr. sporting #21 below. Interestingly, bench coach John Schneider wears #21 and his jersey had his name on it, while those wearing it in honour of Clemente had no name.

The game turned out to be the best I have seen this year. Robbie Ray started for the Blue Jays and pitched 7 innings, yielding just a run while striking out 13. Bo Bichette blasted a 3-run homer in the first off Michael Wacha, the third three-run tater I have seen him hit this season and added a sac fly in the third and am RBI single in the fifth as the Jays soared to a 6-1 lead. Joakim Soria came in for Toronto in the 8th and gave up a 2-run homer to Brett Phillips that made things more interesting than I would have liked, but did allow for a save opportunity. Jordan Romano gladly accepted the chance, retiring the side in order in the 9th for a 6-3 win. Even better, the game took just 2:29, with 260 pitches thrown for an incredibly fast paced of 1.745 PPM. This gave me plenty of time to enjoy a Harvey's burger, another Canadian stalwart in the fast food business. I finished up the day at Real Sports, Toronto's largest sports bar, to watch the Yankees and Orioles.

The next day, I returned to Pearson and was able to get through customs with no problem, using the same test result. It is the airline that confirms your documents at check-in, so there is no additional waiting at USCIS. If you want to stay longer than one day, you will have to get tested in Canada if you are flying back, though there is no test requirement if you drive across the border. 

Next Up

I'm off to Los Angeles for the final Club 123 meetup as both the Rams and Chargers are home on the same weekend. I will also use that trip to revisit Sugar Land, where I was rained out back in July. As always, recaps will be posted here, eventually.

Best,

Sean


Monday, September 13, 2021

Toronto FC 0 at FC Cincinnati 2 - September 11, 2021

The first FC Cincinnati franchise began play in the USL in 2016 before dissolving after three seasons to allow a new franchise with the same name to join MLS in 2019. This new club spent two years at Nippert Stadium while a new venue was constructed in the West End of the city. And it was worth the wait. TQL Stadium opened in April and is one of the most spectacular MLS venues I have visited.

I walked from Nippert (inadvisedly I was later told by a local) after watching the Bearcats blow out Murray State, and approached from the north along Central Parkway. As I passed what appeared to be the offices for Cincinnati Ballet, the stadium suddenly appeared in all its majesty (above). With the sun setting in the west, it was a breathtaking sight and my phone camera was unable to capture it very well.

I walked down to the north gate, which is sponsored by Workhorse, but did not enter as I had yet to buy a ticket. Instead, I returned to Central Parkway, where the main entrance is located. As I approached, I heard distant drums and chanting. Soon, the supporters came around the corner from 14th Street, bellowing "Cincinnati Here Go" with drums beating while blue and orange smoke billowed into the sky. It was quite an exciting event to witness. The group continued up the stairs to the main entrance where they stood for a few minutes, continuing to chant and get other fans involved before making their way in.

I followed them up the stairs to the main entrance, which is sponsored by First Financial Bank. Note the team logo with the winged lion on the right side of the photo below, as well as the FC on the facade. The thin "fins" that make up the exterior are actually lights and can show a variety of animations, including ads.

Below is a look straight up at the fins, which are quite impressive.

There are concession stands in the plaza in front of the gate here and one of them had beer specials for $5. I asked if similar specials were inside and the answer was "Not sure", so rather than risk it, I had a Rhinegeist IPA. Turned out to be the right decision as there were no cheap beers inside. After relaxing for a bit and taking in the atmosphere, I bought a ticket online (there was no manned box office that I could see) and entered.

I was on the east side of the stadium, and again the setting sun provided a beautiful backdrop. You can see suites atop the seating bowl, much of which is part of the club area, with the club itself blocking the concourse and preventing a full loop.

To the south, the seats honour the Federal Communications Commission (above), while to the north is The Bailey, the supporters' section. It is so named because when the team began, they were trying to install a medieval theme (recall the winged lion) and a bailey is an architectural element of a castle. This is a general admission standing area that was not quite filled on this night, as the club is struggling this season.

My ticket was in the lower rows of the east club, where the seats are painted with the winged lion, which is tough to see in the photo below. The club is underneath the seats and seemed to be open to anyone, as ushers were not checking tickets at the top of the stairways. 

At halftime I went down to the club and had a pork belly dog and a beer with no waiting, which seemed a better bet than the concourse concessions, which were a bit crowded before the game and likely more so at halftime. 

Below is a picture from the upper deck during the Canadian national anthem. I thought my seat was on this side as it was the club, but I was kitty corner from here and had to rush back to get there in time for kickoff.

Before the game, I had stopped to take the below picture at a drink rail. A couple next to me noticed my program from the football game and that started a good conversation in which they told me a lot about the team, including how they had yet to win at TQL Stadium, with five draws in nine matches. With league worst Toronto FC visiting, I had a good idea that history would be made on this night.

Overall, TQL Stadium is the finest MLS venue I have been to. There are 27 clubs in the circuit now and I have been to 16 of those stadiums (though many for other sports) and this is the one that really stands out. I don't plan to see every stadium in the league at this point, but if the other new venues are similarly attractive, I will certainly look to add them to my list when possible.

The Game

As mentioned, TFC was visiting with just three wins in 22 matches. Cincinnati was not much better with three victories in 21, but they had a couple more draws for a slight advantage in the standings. Safe to say this would not be a battle worthy of time on ESPN.

Both teams had a chance or two in the first half, but it was the Brazilian Brenner who capitalized for the home side, converting a cross from Argentinian Luciano Acosta in the 39th minute.

The second half started very poorly for TFC when a back header went straight to Brenner, who just missed a brace by hitting the side netting. But the Reds could not hold off a determined attack and Bosnian Haris Medunjanin capitalized, sending a shot from outside the box that deflected past a helpless Quentin Westberg in the 58th minute. Above you can see The Bailey celebrating the goal.

Toronto never really threatened after that and FC Cincinnati had their first win at TQL Stadium. Yuya Kubo, a Japanese national (above trying to keep the ball in play), was the Man of the Match. 

The only good news is that I found a hard ticket after the game, so at least I'll be able to treasure this embarrassing defeat for the rest of my life.

Notes

The stadium is next to the Over-The-Rhine district, which is filled with bars and restaurants and makes for a great spot to relax before or after the game. The pregame march starts here as well and all are welcome to join.

Next Up

I'm returning to Canada for the first time in nearly two years to see the Blue Jays in their third home stadium of the season as they host Tampa Bay on Wednesday afternoon. Check back for a recap to see if I made it.

Best,

Sean


Sunday, September 12, 2021

Murray State Racers 7 at Cincinnati Bearcats 42 (NCAA Football) - September 11, 2021

Last year I booked a trip to Cincinnati to see Toronto FC face FC Cincinnati at Nippert Stadium. Scheduled for mid-March, this was the first trip that I had to cancel due to the pandemic. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise because FC Cincinnati moved to a new stadium this season, and when Toronto FC was scheduled to play on the evening of September 11, the Cincinnati Bearcats had a football game in the afternoon at Nippert, allowing me to see two new venues on the same day. After starting the trip in Beloit on Thursday, I made a brief stop in Minneapolis to see the Twins on Friday before flying to Cincinnati Saturday morning. A ride on TANK's 2X express bus downtown (about the same time as a taxi at 5% of the cost) was followed by a short bus ride uptown to the University of Cincinnati campus.

Nipper Stadium is located down a hill and fronted by a vocal arts center (above). As you can see, the entry points begin out here. There are several gates and no waiting at any, though I got there about an hour before kickoff. 

If you don't want to pay to get in, you could watch the game from a stairwell just outside (above). Of course, this would not qualify for a venue visit, so I ponied up $23 on the secondary market and entered just as the band was heading to their seats.

Opened in 1915, Nippert is the fifth-oldest venue in college football. It is named for James Gamble "Jimmy" Nippert, a Cincinnati footballer who died in 1923 from blood poisoning a month after sustaining a spike wound during a game. James Gamble of Procter & Gamble fame, who was Nippert's grandfather, donated the money necessary to complete construction.

The stadium has undergone numerous renovations in the intervening century, but still retains an old-school feel, with benches though most of the seating area.

In some locations, permanent padded seats have been installed, though they do make traversing a row a bit trickier. Legroom is already tight here, so be careful if you have a couple of beers. Yes, beer is on sale here, which seems to becoming more and more common for on-campus venues.

The stadium is in a horseshoe shape, with the scoreboard and some bleacher seating at the open end.

Looking back towards the south, you can see the vocal arts center, which is quite incongruous next to the stadium.

There are suites or some such area above the original seating bowl on the west side of the stadium. This is where you want to sit to avoid the sun, which was shining in my eyes for much of the afternoon, sitting low down on the east side.

A closer look at the end zone bleachers and the scoreboard above. I like how it hangs right above the end zone, which would provide some interesting views if sitting down low there. 

Looking back from the northwest corner at halftime.

And a look at the shaded west side, which seems to lack the padded chairs. So I guess you get one benefit while giving up another regardless of which side you sit on.

As I was working this game, I did not have as much chance to tour as I would normally. But I was very happy to finally add Nippert Stadium to my list, even if the game wasn't the most exciting.

The Game

Murray State of the FCS was visiting the 7th-ranked Bearcats, who had just announced that they would move to the Big 12 in 2024. I had a seat down low at the 30 and watched as the Racers dominated the first quarter, running 11 plays in 7:14 before an interception in the end zone, and then after Cincy went three-and-out, taking 7:31 for a 12-play drive that culminated in a 1-yard touchdown push from QB Preston Rice.

After the Bearcats went nowhere on their next drive, it looked like an upset in the making, but another Rice interception was followed by Cincinnati moving 40 yards and tying the game on a 2-yard pass from Desmond Ridder to Noah Davis. Both teams missed field goals after that and the half ended 7-7. A guy next to me confidently predicted that Cincinnati would score 40 in the second half, and he wasn't far off. The Bearcats scored touchdowns on their first two possessions of the half, recovered a fumbled punt that immediately led to another touchdown, and even added a touchdown pass from backup Evan Prater, who is considered a future star. The final is below.

Jerome Ford ran for three scores, while Ridder finished 14 for 22 with 2 TD passes. The Racers turned the ball over five times to just one for Cincinnati, and that was how a potential upset turned into a predictable blowout. I was impressed with Murray State's ball control and clock management in the first quarter, but if you can't hold on to the ball, you aren't going to beat a far superior team.

Notes

The last time I saw college football and MLS on the same day, 7th-ranked Cincinnati was also playing. This was last November in Orlando, when the football game took four hours. Fortunately, this one was just over three hours, allowing me plenty of time to walk down to TQL Stadium for FC Cincinnati. More on that in the next post. 

Best,

Sean


Friday, September 10, 2021

South Bend Cubs 5 at Beloit Snappers 2 (High-A Central) - September 9, 2021

The Beloit Snappers spent 40 years at Pohlman Field, a stadium that was not up to the minor league standards imposed by MLB during the recent contraction. Fortunately, the team had seen the future and had begun planning for new digs long ago, though it took some time before those plans could be turned into reality. The club broke ground on a new ballpark last summer and it took just over a year to complete. Built a cost of $37 million, naming rights were taken by ABC Supply, whose chairperson, Diane Hendricks, was instrumental in getting the stadium privately financed. The Snappers played at Pohlman until mid-July and then moved over to ABC Supply Stadium on August 3rd. This forced me to postpone my trip until September, when I was able to visit during the last homestand of the season.

I flew to Chicago's O'Hare Airport and took a bus from there to South Beloit (still in Illinois) as rental car prices were nearly $100 per day. I then had to take a rideshare to get to downtown Beloit. As usual, the closer you have to go, the more it costs per mile: it was $75 to fly from NY to Chicago, $30 to bus to South Beloit, and $12 to travel the final three miles into Wisconsin. I ended up at Lucy's #7 Burger Bar, where I had dined over six years before, though a few new places have popped up in the meantime. After a quick dinner, I hustled over to the stadium, passing by the historic sign below. 

The ballpark is just a few minutes away, with a water tower the iconic feature that you will see in many of the photos.

ABC Supply Stadium sits on the north side of Shirland Avenue, part of which is also the border between Wisconsin and Illinois. However, across from the stadium the border is just a few feet farther south, so you have to walk all the way down Depot Street to get back into Illinois, if you are into that sort of thing.

The box office is on the left side of the building and has three windows. I had a credential and hence did not need to buy tickets, and as this was the last homestand of the season, there is no point in putting ticket prices here as they could change for next season.

The ballpark is located next to the Rock River, which provides a nice view from the concourse. Of course, this also means bugs, and there were thousands of tiny gnats or some such insect on the seats in the later innings, though no biting bugs were seen or felt. This river does flood on occasion but the team expects no issues with that, unlike what recently happened in Somerset.

What I liked most about this place was that it was different from all the other new ballparks that I visited this year. As you can see above, it is a brick structure with an open concourse. Of course, this means little shade during an afternoon game and no cover if it rains, but on the night I attended the weather was perfect, so I had nothing to worry about.

Most fans will make use of the free parking outside the center field gate, which is also closest to downtown. When you enter here, you will notice that the stadium is part of the Riverbend District, which should see some growth over the next few years.

Inside, typical green seats make up the bowl from first to third base. Note the very large suite above, this is the only suite in the ballpark and I would guess it is not for sale to the general public. 

Looking the other way down third base, you can see the club section above and the berm in the distance.

One of the things that surprised me was the length of the rows, with some having as many as 27 seats. Fortunately, the Snappers don't draw particularly well, so this shouldn't be a problem most nights.

Below, you get a feel for the entire brick structure, which is quite attractive. 

Despite the big concourse, however, there are no drink rails behind the plate, though they can be found in other areas of the ballpark.

Though not as impressive as the bridge that makes Modern Woodmen Park so recognizable, the water tower in right field will become an iconic shot over the years.

The berm is artificial turf, just like the field, and sits in front of a party deck down the left field line. I should note that the artificial turf will allow the field to be used for other events such as concerts, a critical consideration for venues in smaller places such as Beloit.

The berm provides netting, making it a perfect place for kids to play while the parents keep watch from a table above.

A bit further down the line and you have quite a unique view back towards home plate. Not a lot of foul territory here and the ball disappears from view if you are sitting along third base.

There is also a small kids zone in this area, though I saw few kids in the ballpark on this night.

The scoreboard sits above left field and is not fully operational. The linescore works, but above that there is nothing but the Snappers 2021 Farewell Season logo. Oh, it is the farewell season for the Snappers name as the team will rebrand during the offseason, with one of the following five monikers to be chosen: Cheeseballs, Moo, Polka Pike, Sky Carp and Supper Clubbers.

The bullpens are also in left field and offer the chance to take photos of your favourite up-and-coming minor league relievers.

I like the picture below that shows the curving fence with the setting sun. Many new parks try to add some odd features to the wall, so it was nice to see something almost old-school for a change.

In the right field corner is a bar creatively labelled Deck Deck Goose, as it serves Goose Island brews. This is an excellent pregame spot and even worth spending a few innings out here if you are not particularly interested in the game.

The view from this area is below. As you can see, protective netting extends all the way down, so you can be less attentive than you used to be. 

Since I was working for Stadium Journey and had a credential, I was able to access the club area. There is a long balcony that has a few tables.

Inside, there is free food and beer for sale, though nobody was actually sitting here. 

The views from the club are excellent. That is Deck Deck Goose below, with the party deck in front.

You can see the entire left field setup in the photo below.

Finally, the view from behind the plate, without the water tower for a change.

Overall, I really enjoyed my time at ABC Supply Stadium. It is a simpler venue than some of the other new ballparks that have popped up over the past few years, but this is exactly what Beloit needs. It is a small town with a population under 40,000 (about 163,000 in the metro area that includes Janesville) and as such does not require anything more than what has been built. The location is perfect for a night out and with a relaxed approach to the game, fans can get comfortable anywhere in the stadium and enjoy their renamed Snappers in 2022.

The Game

The South Bend Cubs were visiting in this High-A Central matchup and they started Jordan Wicks (warming below), the 21st overall pick this year from Kansas State. He made his professional debut four days earlier, pitching an inning. I was hoping for more and got just that as he lasted an inning and a third, taking 35 pitches to record four outs, though one batter reached on an error.

The game was scoreless until the 5th when Bryce Ball (24th round, 2019 by Atlanta) homered for South Bend. The Snappers (Miami's affiliate) got that back in the bottom half on a single, two walks and a ground out, but they quickly allowed the Cubs to score a pair, again with two walks the key. A hit batsman, double, single, and two more walks led to another couple of runs for South Bend in the 8th and two more walks in the bottom half were followed by a single that allowed Beloit to plate the final run of the game as they lost 5-2. I enjoyed the checkerboard linescore, though as you can see, the farewell season logo is all that shows above.

A very ugly game with 15 total walks, 10 from Cubs pitchers. I don't know how you only score two runs after being walked 10 times, but the Snappers did just that. All those walks meant the game went quite long, taking 3:25. Thankfully, fellow sports traveler Sean had offered me a ride back to Chicago, so I did not have to worry about catching any sort of transit option. 

Notes

This was the eighth new minor league park to see this year (including Somerset, which I had visited before when it was independent), which leaves just Sugar Land to again get current with all 120. I will visit there at the end of the month on my way to LA for the Rams and Chargers. 

The Marlins have the Mesa brothers in their system, with Victor Victor Mesa, a one-time top prospect how is now 25, playing for Beloit and his younger brother Victor, who just turned 20 and is their #18 prospect, toiling for Jupiter. If Trevor Rogers is still with Miami and either of these guys gets called up, there should be some fun Airplane jokes in the locker room.

Best,

Sean