Sunday, September 10, 2017

The End of Sports Road Trips


The end of my minor league quest last month was also the end of my larger enterprise of sports road trips. I use the term sports road trip to refer to an extended journey (ideally a week or more), taking in at least one game every day, usually in a different stadium. During the eight-year life of this blog, I've taken over 50 of these trips, averaging one every two months. The trips started as a way to get out of high-density Japan and on the open road throughout America, checking out some sports along the way; the blog was an attempt to get other sports fans to think about doing the same thing.

After I moved to the States in 2013, I did the NFL Road Trip, a four-month jaunt which brought me closer to Club 122, which I completed in early 2014. Over the past three summers, I've been running around to minor league ballparks to finish yet another quest. With that done, I've actually run out of compelling sports spots to visit. I still have five AHL rinks plus a few CFL stadiums that I want to see, and some remaining road venues for the Blue Jays and Maple Leafs, but that's about it. At any rate, given the geographic spread of those stadiums, an extended driving trip is no longer practical. I do enjoy the atmosphere of college basketball, but I'm not going to fly across the country to see two or three of those games, and schedules rarely allow for a longer trip. So I'll be relaxing for the most part, and this blog will become an occasional outlet rather than a running diary of my trips.

That doesn't mean that I'm giving up the entire sports travel hobby. With the addition of the Vegas Golden Knights, Club 122 is now 123, and there are four other new venues opening in the next two months: the Atlanta Falcons will now call Mercedes-Benz Stadium home; the Los Angeles Chargers will use StubHub Center temporarily; while Detroit sees Little Caesars Arena for both the Red Wings and Pistons. In order to maintain my credentials, I will pay a visit to each of these before Christmas.

Having used up all my vacation and then some on my minor league road trips during the summer, I am limited to weekends for these upcoming jaunts. These trips require little planning and in two cases, not even a car, making the road trip term even more unsuitable. Still, they're better than nothing.  Here are the three trips that I will be taking to remain a member of Club 123. The Georgia State game has already been cancelled as Memphis is rearranging their schedule after their game at UCF was postponed due to Hurricane Irma.
Sat Sep 30 Memphis Tigers at Georgia State Panthers (NCAA Football) TBD
Sat Sep 30 North Carolina Tar Heels at Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets 12:00
Sun Oct 1  Buffalo Bills at Atlanta Falcons 1:00

Sat Oct 21 St. Louis Blues at Vegas Golden Knights 7:30
Sun Oct 22 Denver Broncos at Los Angeles Chargers 1:25

Sat Nov 11 Columbus Blue Jackets at Detroit Red Wings 7:00
Sun Nov 12 Cleveland Browns at Detroit Lions 1:00
Sun Nov 12 Miami Heat at Detroit Pistons 4:00
In 2001, I saw the Lions at Browns in one of the worst NFL games every (Ty Detmer threw 7 picks) and this one promises to be just as excruciating. Fortunately, I have to leave early to see the Heat and Pistons. As for the other games, nothing too exciting except another likely Bills loss on the road.

I will be posting recaps of each visit, so check back in a month to see how Mercedes-Benz Stadium stacks up.

Best,

Sean

Monday, August 28, 2017

Bowling Green Hot Rods 0 at West Michigan Whitecaps 3 (Midwest League) - August 26, 2017


The final stop on my quest to see all 160 active minor league stadiums was Fifth Third Ballpark, home of the West Michigan Whitecaps. The stadium is located in Comstock Park, a town just northwest of Grand Rapids, which happens to be the hometown of Floyd Mayweather, who fought Conor MacGregor later that night. Sharpy had left the trip to get home to watch that bout, but Duncan hung around to accompany me to the historic final game.



Parking here is $7 in two lots that look like they could take a while to clear out after the game. One is in front of the stadium, the other behind. I did not see any other parking options either, so arrive early and park near the entrance to speed your exit. We parked in the second lot behind the ballpark, which is where the above photo was taken.



Moving around to the front, you will have to walk up a flight of stairs to get to the main entrance. The trees block a picture of the whole ballpark.



At the top of the stairs is the box office, along with plaques representing the championship years for the franchise. Note that the team store is named CapSized, a double pun on what they sell and the team name. Tickets here range from $16 for premium box seats behind the plate to $8 for lawn seats. I was very surprised at the crowd on hand, and as we approached the window, they put up a sign that only lawn seats were available. We decided to see if someone had extras, and our patience was rewarded when we were handed a couple of tickets for the Miller Lite House Deck. Free baseball! Or so we thought. Turns out the tickets had already been used, which begs the question: why give them away? Anyway, we shamefully returned to the ticket window, where Duncan picked up a lawn seat. I was about to do the same, but on a whim, I asked if they had any singles and they did, selling me a box seat down low near third base for $14.



There were a few empty seats around me and after a couple of innings, Duncan joined me and we moved to the second row next to the dugout, which was clear of the protective netting. You will notice that the upper rows are benches; these are the reserved seats and cost $12.50. The leftmost section above first base (209) is alcohol-free, something to keep in mind if you want a beer.



Before the game, we completed the obligatory tour. You cannot walk the entire way around the stadium, but the aforementioned Miller Lite House Deck is almost directly behind centerfield. We went up with our disallowed tickets, but you needed an additional piece of paper to get in, as the Deck is a private party location. That made it even more confusing as to why we would be handed tickets that had already been used AND for a section that we could not enter. Anyway, the staff was kind enough to let me in to snap a picture that gives a good idea of the full stadium layout.



Walking back towards first base, we saw several concession stands, with portable carts offering steak sandwiches and black bean burgers the most tempting. The most intriguing option however, is the Fifth Third Burger, which comes with its own competition. The behemoth pictured below costs $28 and comes with 4,889 calories and 597% of your daily allotment of saturated fat. If you finish it following the rules (no reversals!) you get a t-shirt, your photo on a board, and several days of indigestion.



There were over 9,000 fans on hand for this one, significantly more than the 5,500 average the team had experienced so far this season. I was grateful that so many came out to honour my achievement.



In reality, this was a great promotion combination that brought them to the ballpark despite the cloudy weather. Not only were fireworks scheduled for after the game, but also it was Harry Potter Night. Signs were all around the ballpark, such as Ministry of Magic (guest services), wanted posters from Azkaban escapees, and labelling a bar as the Leaky Cauldron. Of course, many fans came dressed as their favourite characters along with their wands and other wizardly tools.



As well, Whitecaps player pictures were subtly altered to make them appear as characters from the series of movies (below), and the team wore special jerseys that can be seen in this video, that were auctioned off after the game. The overall promotion was very well done, possibly the most comprehensive promotion I have seen in the minor leagues.



Returning to the tour, the six championship years are also denoted above the press box.



There are high top seats behind home plate that go for $110 for a table of four and come with waitress service.



Down both lines are very spacious lawn sections.



There is an interesting historical plaque along the concourse as well that details how a Grand Rapids federal court upheld the reserve clause back in 1914. I always appreciate these facts that prove that you learn something new every day.



Overall, I had a great time at Fifth Third Ballpark, and am glad it was the final spot on the tour. It was certainly a busy night and a bit of a weird start with the ticket fiasco that wasn't even a scam, but once we settled into our seats, we enjoyed a great game to finish off the trip.



The Game

I finally got a good pitching matchup, as the Whitecaps had Matt Manning, the 9th overall pick in 2016 and Detroit's top prospect (below in the Harry Potter jersey), starting while Bowling Green (Tampa Bay) countered with Willy Ortiz, whose 3.12 ERA would be good for fourth in the Midwest League had he enough innings to qualify.



Both starters were strong through five innings, with Manning showing particularly good stuff in limiting the Hot Rods to a couple of singles. In the top of the 6th, two walks sandwiched a single to load the bases with only one out, but Manning struck out Jesus Sanchez (Tampa Bay's #4 prospect) and induced Rene Pinto to ground out to extinguish the threat. It was obvious that Manning was done, so the Whitecaps needed to score some runs in the bottom half to get him in line for the win, and they did just that. With one out, Saskatchewan native Cole Bauml (10th, 2015) singled and Torontonian Danny Pinero (9th, 2016) following with a base knock of his own. Isaac Paredes doubled them both home and later scored on a fielder's choice to make it 3-0 West Michigan with all three runs charged to Ortiz.

Brandon Sittinger (17th, 2016) came on for the Whitecaps and gave up a couple of walks in the 8th. Manager Mike Rabelo did not want to risk Manning's first win at this level and brought in Trent Szkutnik (20th, 2014) to get the final five outs, which he did, including 3 strikeouts. The final batter in my quest was Adrian Rondon, Tampa's #13 prospect.



It was fitting that the winning run was scored by a Canadian as Manning picked up his first win at this level after three poor starts. It will be worth watching his moves up the Tigers ladder over the next few seasons.

Notes

Not only was this active minor league ballpark #160, it was my 300th baseball venue lifetime. Three of those are sponsored by Fifth Third Bank, with the other two dubbed Fields (Dayton and Toledo).

I asked the Whitecaps for a scoreboard mention, but they were unable to do that as only birthdays are shown there, but they did a PA announcement in the 5th inning, for which a few fans applauded. Always nice to be recognized.

There were three other giveaways on this evening that possibly contributed to the large crowd: ketchup and mustard squeeze bottles were given away to the first 1,000 fans; five TVs were handed to lucky fans based on their seat, and a free loaf of bread was given to every fan upon exit. I picked up a loaf but as I was flying back to NY the next day and really didn't want to carry it around, I gave it to Duncan, who enjoyed it on his drive back.

Next Up

I am going to continue visiting new Club 123 venues, and the next one of those will be Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, which I will add to the list on October 1 when the Bills are in town. Until then, I'll be seeing games here and there, so bookmark the site and check back on occasion for more recaps.

Best,

Sean

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Fort Wayne TinCaps 11 at Lansing Lugnuts 3 (Midwest League) - August 25, 2017


The penultimate stop on my quest for minor league ballpark glory was Lansing, Michigan's capital city. Home of the Lugnuts, Toronto's Class-A affiliate, Lansing offers several tourist attractions that allow for a full day to be spent there. Just a few blocks away from the ballpark is the Capitol building, where you can take a guided tour and learn a bit about the history of the state.



Between the Capitol and the stadium is the Lansing Center, which hosts the Greater Lansing Area Sports Hall of Fame. Among its many inductees are Magic Johnson and the Miller brothers of NHL fame. There is also a LeBron James jersey on display, though if you look closer, you will see it belongs to Carl Thomas, who wore #23 for the Cavs in 1997.



The Olds Transportation Museum is just a block south along the Grand River, though we did not go, instead having lunch at the Lansing Brewing Company, which is located right behind the ballpark. You can leave your car at their parking lot as long as you stop in for a beer or two before going to the game. Their sampler comes highly recommended, with 5 beers costing $8.



Once you have enjoyed your pregame meal, walk along Cedar Street to the front of the stadium. Opened in 1996 as Oldsmobile Park, the naming rights were bought by Cooley Law School in 2010. The field is sponsored separately by an insurance firm, so the full name of the venue is Jackson Field at Thomas M. Cooley Law School Stadium. It is also used by the Michigan State baseball team.



Ticket prices here are reasonable, with the first few rows of box seats costing $15, while the rest of the boxes are $12. There are bleachers down the first base line (above) for $11 and lawn seats are $9. Netting only extends to the near edge of the dugouts. Once again, Fort Wayne were the visitors and their broadcaster John Nolan provided tickets for us, for which we are most appreciative.



The concourse is covered by the suites between the bases and offers a full view of the field while you are buying your food. Concessions were typical, with the Blue Olive along first base offering Greek fare the most unusual option.



You can walk around the entire stadium, and it is recommended that you do so. The outfield contains a series of plaques that comprise the Michigan Baseball Hall of Fame, which was founded in 2015 and has only 14 inductees so far, including John Smoltz.



The full stadium structure as seen from centerfield is below:



Note the view from right field, specifically the sharp angle between the outfield and benches. The ballpark is built on a narrow footprint between Cedar and Larch Streets, so the distance down both lines is only 305 feet.



In order to make home runs a bit more difficult, the fences along both lines are higher than the rest of the outfield. Also note the lofts behind the ballpark, which seem to have been just completed and looking for renters. It would be a lot of fun to spend a season living here, with everything you need (baseball and beer that is) within a 2-minute walk.



Completing the tour, I came across the starting lineup, but only for the Lugnuts, which isn't that helpful for those keeping score in the traditional sense, that is, for both teams.



The mascot here is the Big Lug, a dinosaur with lugnuts coming out of his nose and a couple of fangs. He can be seen roaming the concourse or dancing on the dugout throughout the game.



The final shadow selfie of the trip, with Duncan and Sharpy waving goodbye. Note: I have been corrected and told that they are doing the Funky Feather from Great Lakes.



Overall, I was happy to have finally added this venue to my list. Ever since Toronto had taken over the affiliation in 2005, I had wanted to visit here, but it took me over a decade to finally find time to do so. With the downtown location, several tourist attractions nearby, and the brewery next door, Cooley Law School Stadium is one of my favourite minor league ballparks and one that I hope to get back to sometime.

The Game



Fort Wayne (San Diego) sent Michel Baez, a 6'8 Cuban who signed this year and is already the Padres #7 prospect. Lansing (Toronto) had Andy Ravel (7th, 2016, above) on the hill, and he should have been called Unravel because that is what happened to the Lugnuts as Fort Wayne batted around in the 2nd, scoring six times. With Baez shutting down the Lansing offense, those six runs were more than enough, but the TinCaps added a pair in the third and three more in the fifth to really make it ugly. David Jacob (32nd, 2016) managed a 2-run shot for Lansing to spoil Baez's shutout in the fourth, and a ninth inning triple by Yeltsin Gudino (named for Boris?) led to another Lugnut run, but it was all too little, too late as Fort Wayne frolicked to an 11-3 win.



The Blue Jays and Lugnuts combined to go 0-5 on this trip. Ugh.

Notes

There were a number of classic cars out front of the stadium before the game, part of Oldsmobile Heritage Night. Some beautifully restored autos here and a great advertisement for the museum, which I'll have to visit next time.



Best,

Sean

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Lansing Lugnuts 2 at Great Lakes Loons 5 (Midwest League) - August 24, 2017


After leaving the Tigers and Yankees basebrawl, Sharpy and I drove through early rush hour traffic north along I-75, heading for Midland, where the Great Lakes Loons play. There is a ton of roadwork taking place this summer, and the drive took a little longer than expected, but we reached the parking lot ($4) at Dow Diamond at 6 pm, one hour before first pitch. My buddy Duncan had driven down from Ottawa to join us for the final weekend and we met up outside the ballpark. While Duncan was waiting, he was handed a couple of extra tickets, and picked up another one for $10.50, so we went straight in. To get to the concourse you have to walk up a flight of stairs, above which is the 2016 Midwest League pennant.



At the top of the stairs is a local hall of fame, which includes some memorabilia. MLB umpire Paul Emmel is from Midland and his uniform was one of the objects on display.



Inside, the concourse is spacious and was enough for the surprisingly large crowd for this Thursday night. Concessions are mostly typical, but there is a good portable stand down the third base line offering wraps for $7. It was $1 night as well, so hot dogs, chips, ice cream sandwiches, and small sodas were a buck each, leading to long lines throughout the game. Sadly, it was not Thirsty Thursday, and beer was the normal price.



The ballpark opened in 2007 to welcome the Loons, who moved from Battle Creek. The naming rights are owned by Dow, who is a major employer in the area, and the stadium name is a pun on the Dow logo, which is a red diamond. The venue is still quite new and has been well maintained in the intervening decade.



As always, I took the lap around. The layout is similar to most parks, with a berm in one corner and a picnic area in another.



The Road to the Show exhibit is out in center field and worth the walk. Each player is listed with his number as an Interstate sign (representing the road), his position, his years with the Loons, and the date of his MLB debut. Kenley Janssen played here as a catcher back in 2007-08.



Turn around to get the full shot of the stadium structure. Note that the sun sets behind the stadium, so all seats are in the shade for night games. Midland is quite far north, so most fans bring sweaters and blankets as it does get chilly in the evening in late August.



Continuing the walk around, you will notice a display along the third base concourse that discusses the history of the team. On this day, it was mostly blocked by a promotional stand, but I did grab a picture of the 2016 championship trophy.



Starting lineups are displayed electronically near the main entrance. The Lugnuts were a good team for most of the season but then Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette were promoted to Dunedin, and the team is in last place in the East in the second half.



Duncan and Sharpy joined me for the now-legendary shadow selfie.



Overall, I really enjoyed Dow Diamond, which is another minor league venue that provides plenty of entertainment for the fans, good food, and affordable tickets. I didn't enjoy the game however.



The Game

Lansing (Toronto) was visiting on this night and sent Mike Ellenbest (24th, 2016) to take on the Loons (Los Angeles), who responded with Melvin Jimenez. After three straight 3-up, 3-down innings, Great Lakes opened the scoring with five singles, a walk, and a double to take a 5-0 lead. Every time a run scored, the fans did the Funky Feather where they pumped both fists into the air while "Sandstorm" by Darude plays. I was wearing my Blue Jays jersey and cheering for Lansing, thus I did not participate in the fun, despite incessant prodding from Duncan. Sharpy was not so dedicated to the cause, gleefully cheering runs by the opposition. Given the Toronto performance on this trip, hard to blame him.

Lansing did get an unearned run back in the 5th, and I finally had a chance to do the Funky Feather, only to earn the derision of the home fans. In the ninth, a couple of singles plated the final Lugnut tally as they lost 5-2. I was so disappointed that I did not bother taking a shot of the final score.

Notes

The ZOOperstars were in attendance, including Tim Tebull, who even includes the John 3:16 eye black that Tim Tebow wore. Tebull may have to become a basebull player now that Tebow is in the Mets minor league system.



Dow Diamond was my 750th lifetime venue.

Best,

Sean

Friday, August 25, 2017

New York Yankees 6 at Detroit Tigers 10 - August 24, 2017


My next stop on the minor league tour was Midland, Michigan, about 3 hours north of Toledo, where the Great Lakes Loons would host a game on Thursday evening. Detroit happens to be between these two towns, and the Tigers happened to have an afternoon game that day, with the Yankees visiting. Sharpy had never been to Comerica Park, and my last visit was in 2001, so we decided to stop in, knowing that we would probably have to leave early.



Comerica opened in 2000, replacing venerable Tiger Stadium, the site of my first Sports Road Trip back in 1986 (the Jays split two games over the weekend). It is one of the more spectacular parks, with giant tiger sculptures greeting you at the main entrance.



Just inside the main entrance is the Big Cat Court; a collection of food stands surrounding a carousel that costs $2 to ride.



Along the concourse are displays for each decade in Tigers history, with memorabilia and small descriptions of past stars and accomplishments. Take your time to wander around to see them all.



Another food area is the Brushfire Grill, which has a couple of hedge batters (above) as well as a small Ferris wheel for kids, also $2. I think adults can ride as well if they can hide their embarrassment.



More history can be found in the outfield concourse, where six statues of all-time Tiger greats can be found, including Ty Cobb (above).



Turn around and you get a good view of the overall stadium structure. You can see the separation between decks above first base; to the left are the 200 sections, while the 300s are to the right. There are club seats in the lower sections here, but they didn't seem to offer much in the way of amenities, other than some thin padding. The view from the topmost row behind the plate is below.



We bought tickets on the secondary market at the last minute and got a good deal to sit 10 rows above the Yankee dugout (view below).



Overall, I was very impressed by Comerica Park, which has aged really well. My initial impression 16 years ago was that it was trying too hard, but now I appreciated all the bells and whistles. With the surrounding neighbourhood enjoying a bit of a renaissance, Comerica is really worth a visit for any stadium traveler.

The Game

I had set a limit of 2.5 hours before we had to leave to make the two-hour drive to Midland. When the first three innings took just 50 minutes, I thought we had a chance to see the whole game. What a fool I am. The game slowed in the fourth, and in the fifth it nearly came to a stop. First, Tiger starter Michael Fulmer had trouble with a nerve injury, and he hit Gary Sanchez, who had homered earlier. There is some bad blood between these two clubs after a series in New York saw a couple of retaliatory hit batsmen, but no warning was issued. In the bottom half, Jaime Garcia, the struggling Yankee starter, was replaced by Adam Warren, who had problems with his control. The Tigers plated 4 runs to take a 6-3 lead after 5, and those two innings took well over an hour. When the Yankees did not score in the 6th, we decided to leave. After a pit stop, I walked back to the concourse to check out the Tiger sixth. With two outs, pitcher Tommy Kahnle threw behind Miguel Cabrera, and was ejected. Manager Joe Girardi raced on to the field to argue with HP ump Carlos Torres and was quickly tossed. Aroldis Chapman came in and took about ten minutes to warm up. I decided to stay to see if anything would transpire, and sure enough, as Cabrera returned to the batters box, he and catcher Austin Romine exchanged words, then a push, and then started fighting. Benches cleared and I scooted down to take a picture.



This was the second year in a row I've seen a brawl after last's years antics in Texas, and they are certainly not boring, but also not appreciated as they take a lot of time and the fighting is not that good anyway. Once things settled down, we left before the next pitch was thrown and listened to the rest of the game on the radio as we motored up I-75. There were two more hit batsmen, including James McCann getting dinged in the helmet, and several more ejections. The Yankees tied things at 6, but the Tigers got those 3 back and McCann added a homer to make the final 10-6 in a game that took a ridiculous 4:13.

Notes

The Yankees are idiots for playing this tit-for-tat HBP game when they are in contention for the playoffs. It amazes me how little they care about the wins and losses, paying more attention to getting even. There is the possibility of suspensions (Sanchez apparently sucker punched Cabrera on the ground) that could really hurt them. Their wild card lead is probably big enough to ensure that five games without Sanchez would not knock them out of the playoffs, but you never know. Here's hoping for some karmic payback.

Best,

Sean