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The Green Grass of an Old Home

Monday, Sept. 5, 2016: Oakland, Calif. 

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim 10, Oakland Athletics 7 

It had been too long since I’ve seen an A’s game.

Admittedly, Billy Beane and Lew Wolff have done their best to discourage anyone from keeping up with the A’s, but that never-ending roster reshuffle and a .423 winning percentage resulted the availability of a nice seat near third base for a mere $20 on StubHub, so there I was.

IMG_9448The Coliseum experience remains what it has long been — the place is less than ideal for baseball — though the presence of gridiron lines on the field let me know my seat would have been excellent for football as well.
But the fans are great, their passion and timing more than making up for their relatively small numbers, an announced 18,149 on Labor Day against a team that was equally disappointing this year.

A Latino Nuke LaLoosh: It was the major-league debut for A’s pitcher Raul Alacantara, who marked the occasion by hitting three batters in the first, on his way to giving up five run in two innings that also featured a home run and a run-scoring balk. No where to go but up.
His shaky start helped put the A’s down 8-2 after the top of the third, but give them credit for fighting back to get to within 8-7, stranding 11 runners in the process.

No excuse: After all the recent trades, Stephen Vogt is the only name I recognized on the roster, but I should have known about Khris Davis, who entered the game with 34 home runs and added a 35th in the seventh.

EckheadNew and Maybe Improved: Since my last trip to the Coliseum, they’ve either put in new scoreboards or gave them a software update, delivering high resolution through what tech critics would call a crowded, confusing UI.

They’ve also added a mascot race, in which giant-headed versions of Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Finger and Ricky Henderson raced around the infield. Eck won, but I suspect the event’s result may be predetermined, unlike the dot race …

Game recap here and boxscore here.

Fish Story

Monday, January 18, 2016: San Jose, Calif. 

Bakersfield Condors 5, San Jose Barracuda 3

This year, five western NHL teams conspired to move their American Hockey League affiliates to California, with the idea that they’d be able to keep closer tabs on their prospects.

Four teams took the logical route, and located their new teams either in cities that already had teams in the lower-level ECHL or had a minor league hockey history.

The Sharks simply moved their Worcester Sharks into their own rink in San Jose to become the Barracuda.

A good look at the SAP Center's seat-color patterns
A good look at the SAP Center’s seat-color patterns.

 

The game experience was as desultory as my previous AHL experience, for entirely different reasons.

 

A lot of the things I hate about the game experience were the same: crappy loud rock was blasted at every. single. moment the puck is not in play; vast realms of empty seats both in front of and behind curtains lowered to hide even more empty seats.

San Jose added the pain by brightly flashing a strobe-type light throughout the arena every 10 to 15 seconds, perfectly timed to give me a headache. And the in-arena PA announcer substitutes volume for ability.

Adding to the desultory nature of things is the way the Sharks set up the Barracuda game experience at SAP Center.
Almost every concession stand was closed.
But the few that were open charged full NHL prices.
It took me until the third period to find the table where they were handing out game roster sheets.

The actual hockey game itself was good, and I appreciated being able to afford a ticket to see it up close (in contrast to Sharks games) but the environment in which I had to watch it sucked.

Crash Davis minor league echo: San Jose coach Roy Sommer – a more interesting character than the fictional Bull Durham slugger – was looking to tie the AHL record of 636 coaching wins.

Fashion note:  San Jose played in orange uniforms that looked like practice jerseys. That allowed Bakersfield to play in their smart Edmonton Oilers-based white jerseys, further proving that I am correct in believing home teams should play in white.

Strong argument for white home jerseys
Strong argument for white home jerseys.

Music criticism: Playing ‘Even the Losers’ sounds a bit desperate after the opponents’ fourth goal.

Attendance: claimed to be 5,872. Seems optimistic.

Name of the Game: Rob Klinkhammer of Bakersfield. The Name of the Game honor is strictly for most interesting-sounding name, but the Colonel potted two goals and an assist.

Say something nice: No lines for the restrooms.

Game reports here and here.

 

Up Canada Way

Sunday July 12, Vancouver, B.C. 

Salem-Keizer Volcanoes 10, Vancouver Canadians 5
I’ll cut to the chase; Nat Bailey Stadium was a pretty cool place to watch a baseball game. We were in Vancouver on vacation, and I was pleased to find that the Canadians had a homestand during our stay.

Pandering to one of my biases, it’s an old stadium (though they’ve updated a little bit recently).

I was struck the most by its resemblance to another venerable minor league venue closer to my home: Municipal Stadium in San Jose.
It’s of a similar vintage, built to a similar design, is similarly unfussy, has a similar location in a park outside the city center, and proudly displays its history along the interior corridors.

IMG_0723

To make this Californian even more at home, British Columbia was experiencing a severe drought.
The stadium has come down a peg from earlier decades when the home team played triple-A ball; the Pacific Coast League packed up in 1999 and moved to Sacramento.
Happily a Northweast League team arrived the next year, and I think the less high-falutin’ nature of the short-season single-A suits the homespun nature of the stadium anyway.
Short-season A is where new draft picks often get their first taste of the pros and, from the evidence on hand the Blue Jays (Vancouver’s parent team) didn’t maybe draft all that well. The Canadians started well but their bullpen was catastrophic and more than gave away the lead the team had put together through the first six innings. The lowlight was back-to-back Salem-Keizer home runs in the seventh.
One Vancouver player stood out, first for his awesome name — Earl Burl III — and then by playing aggressive and effective baseball, stroking a first-pitch RBI in his first at-bat.
He used his speed to force an error to reach base in the seventh, then hustled to break up a likely double play.

Salem=Keizer may have played better, but the Canadians looked better — the Salem-Keizer uniforms looked like T-shirts.

Nice minor league touch: $1 root beer Sunday.

And the grounds crew danced for the seventh inning stretch.

IMG_0721

Recap here, here and here:

Inside the Great Red Hockey Machine

It’s not unusual to see near-identical ideas result in films released at the same time.

Save the world from a killer asteroid. Terrorists attack the White House.

Usually, it’s simultaneous schlock.

It’s happened again, but it isn’t schlock — it was my unexpected pleasure to enjoy two high quality documentaries about Soviet hockey in a three-day period.

It’s hard to imagine that the directors and producers of ‘Red Army’ and ‘Of Miracles and Men’ weren’t aware of each other’s efforts — particularly since the great defenseman Slava Fetisov pays a pivotal role in both documentaries.

It’s not a repetitive journey — each film uses a different lens to tell the story of Soviet hockey.

“Of Miracles and Men,” an ESPN 30 for 30 production, has a higher concept at its disposal: looking at the 1980 Olympics’ ‘Miracle on Ice’ contest from the point of view of the Soviet players who were on the losing end.

The film’s storyline runs through Fetisov, who agreed to revisit Lake Placid to be interviewed there.

‘Red Army’ tries to paint a broader picture — explaining how the Soviet hockey program worked, trying to unravel the seeming contradiction of how such a brutal and rigid system produced such beautiful hockey.

VFK
Slava Fetisov is the key figure in both documentaries. Credit: Sony Classics

The answer to that question, in another irony, lies in the efforts of one individual in a collective society: Anatoli Tarasov, the father of Soviet hockey, who developed the intricate passing system that Soviet teams rode to world domination.

Both films tell his story, though it’s featured more heavily in ‘Red Army’ which traces the rise of hockey in the Soviet Union, and also its fall, centering largely on Fetisov, who largely through the force of his will forced open hockey’s Iron Curtain, which had kept Soviet stars from playing abroad.

Both films are well worth anyone’s time; they’re not just for hockey fans.

By happenstance, I saw ‘Red Army’ first, and if one has a choice I
think that’s the best order to watch them in, as it paints a larger canvas that provides context with which to appreciate the specific moment ‘Of Miracles and Men’ revisits.

‘Red Army’ is in theatrical release around the U.S.; ‘Of Miracles and Men’, which debuted on ESPN, is now available on Netflix.

Can’t Go Home Again

Dec.  7, 2014: Hartford, Conn.

Hartford Wolf Pack 4, Binghamton Senators 2

This was my first visit to what I knew as the Hartford Civic Center for 22 years. It was disheartening.

The last time I was there it was because I made a point of seeing a Hartford Whalers game on a trip home. The team had five more years left before nefarious manipulations ended its Hartford run, but I already had a sense that the team’s future was precarious.

About my relationship with the Whalers: it’s complicated.

Always have been a Buffalo Sabres fan, and will be as long as they remain there. But I moved to Connecticut before fifth grade, and my life as a hockey fan became entwined with the Mighty Whale, from games at the Civic Center (many, but not all, against the Sabres) to “Hockey Night in Hartford” on Channel 30.

I’m not looking it up, but in all the years, the Whalers and Sabres shared the five-team Adams Division, which had four playoff spots, I don’t think they both made the postseason in the same year.

So it was pretty easy to adopt the Whalers as my second team, enjoying their triumphant, parade-worthy run to the second round (I attended game three in Hartford) in 1986, (damn you Claude Lemieux) and their division championship the next year as the Sabres were busy, um, rebuilding.

Anyway, to me the Civic Center scene meant buzzing crowds, big-time players, and games that meant something. It had atmosphere.

Everything that was lacking at what is now known as the XL Center.

IMG_6816
A small gathering at the former Civic Center.

 

The year after the Whalers were moved, the New York Rangers moved their farm team into the arena, and there it has remained ever since. The Wolf Pack is in its 18th season in Hartford, matching the number of NHL seasons the Whalers spent there. (But don’t forget the WHA!)

The arena is visibly the same. And in all honesty, the quality of the AHL game wasn’t bad. But the whole experience was as flat as a four-day old cup of soda.

There was a group of rowdy fans that chanted semi-obscenely behind one of the goals. They tried. There was all kinds of the blaring loud music Kevin Dupont refers to as audioporn blaring from the P.A. system. But it echoed off the sea of empty seats.

IMG_6783
Many more empty seats are hidden behind the curtains.

 

There’s a big problem with AHL hockey. The team isn’t really set up to win. Winning’s nice, no one complains, but the team exists to serve the needs of the big-league team, and if those needs weaken the AHL team, so what?

Even if I lived in Connecticut I don’t think I’d ever attend another Wolf Pack game.

I doubt the NHL will return. The league doesn’t have that much class and good sense.

But there is a silver lining for Connecticut hockey fans.

There are three Division I teams in the state. Two of them met in the 2013 NCAA final.

The third, UConn, joined the powerhouse Hockey East conference this year. Given the deep support for UConn sports in the Nutmeg state, I won’t be surprised if the halls of the former Hartford Civic Center buzz and its rafters rattle with cheers from fans watching high-level hockey that counts for something.

Worth Every Penny: Thanks to the Boy Scout leader who offered their extra tickets to me and others standing in line. 

Hank
Henrik Tallinder, top, wearing #7, staring down the prospect of retirement.

Bloodlines: The Wolf Pack dressed two Bourque brothers and a Vaive, all sons of well-known NHLers.

Where Have You Gone, Hank Tallinder? To Hartford, where the former Sabre was playing on a professional tryout deal.

He looked like a steadying influence on defense, but the Wolf Pack cut him loose a week later.

Game Report: Here and here.

More photos here.

Soccer City PDX

May 17, 2014: Portland, Ore.

Portland Timbers 3, Columbus Crew 3

It was a weird, but wonderful birthday present.

Get out of town, my wife said. Go see a soccer game in Portland.

So I did.

Now I’m not a Portland Timbers fan. But I am a soccer fan. And I am a fan of Portland. And the two go very well together.

A lot has been written about the fan experience in Portland. The Timbers Army, et al. It’s pretty much true, and I won’t repeat it.

 

Timbers Army -- European style tifo, without the fascism.
Timbers Army — European style tifo, without the fascism.

 

 

What really pushes the experience over the top, and where Portland and its soccer team got a little lucky, is the stadium.
I first set eyes on what was then Civic Stadium in 1990, the first time I visited Portland, and I was enchanted even then. It was a baseball stadium, but something about the way it was tucked into the Portland street grid connected with me.
But I’d never seen a game there until now.
The Timbers owner persuaded the city to pour some money into the old stadium help induce Major League Soccer to town, and part of the former outfield has been converted into a modern stand on the west side.
But the rest of the stadium is delightfully (unless your view is obstructed) retro.
The layout of the stadium combines with the raucous Timbers fan base for a spot-on live experience. Nirvana for a soccer fan.
The game itself was quite entertaining, with a mix of over-the-top fouls, spectacular goals, and gutsy comebacks.

When all was said and done, though, I wasn’t sure how much of a deep impact the Timbers have made on the larger community. Was this support deep, but narrow?
I think I got an answer the next morning, when I stopped at an industrial size breakfast operation, out in the suburbs near the airport, far from the yuppies of the Pearl and the Portlandia characters in Southeast.
I had my Sunday Oregonian open to the sports section, reading about the game, and the server started chatting about the game, and how the Timbers were struggling this year.
I don’t think that would even happen in an eatery across the street from the San Jose Earthquakes’ stadium
On that basis, I’ll say the Timbers have broken through.

Hard proof not everything was updated when Portland renovated the stadium.
Hard proof not everything was updated when Portland renovated the stadium.

The Bad Side: After Powell’s brutal foul, had to spend the next hour listening, over and over, to the bozo behind me complain to his friends about how the ref had blown the call and was biased against the Timbers. This is why Portland supporters are the Vancouver Canuck fans of Major League Soccer.

Postgame Quote of the Year: Portland’s Will Johnson: “We have the heart of the lion, but the brain of goldfish.

Game report here.

Monsters of Ice

Nov. 8, 2013: Fresno, Calif.
Gateway Ice Center
San Diego Gulls 6, Fresno Monsters 5 (2OT)
My unplanned meandering through the lower levels of North American competitive hockey has already led me through Canadian Major Junior and Junior A and U.S. Tier II.
At this point I ought to close the circle. That leaves Tier I and Tier III, but since I had a short weekend to work with the process of elimination led me to the Tier III Fresno Monsters of the Western States Hockey League.
Which may lead readers to the same question I asked myself — what the heck is Tier III? A question I asked again after watching the Monsters play their season opener at what is basically a recreational ice rink without a grandstand.
How do they support a team that was able to play cohesive well-coached hockey, with trappings that include a mascot, without much capacity to sell tickets?
Turns out the answer is simple — the players pay to play.
I didn’t figure that out until after the game, which is just as well as it might have clouded my thoughts to think that these kids’ parents are paying so much to chase what for most will be an elusive dream of a college scholarship. Never mind the NHL.
It was the home opener for the Monsters who were riding high in the standings after several weeks of road games and they played a very disciplined game against the last-place Gulls.
But it was the Gulls that came out on top of the see-saw contest.
A couple things made a difference for the Gulls — differences that highlight some of the factors that have these players in Tier III.
Number one — goalkeeper Brody Cavataio played a terrific game for the Gulls. I almost said ‘played over his head’ but that wouldn’t be nice because, well, he’s not tall, a factor apt to limit his advancement despite his evident competitiveness, reflexes and positioning. Indeed, the Monsters potted their third goal over his shoulder.
X-factor two was the Gulls’ massive Latvian defenseman Kalvis Ozols, who had come over from Europe less than three weeks prior. His uniform was lettered for a guy named Peterson.
Ozols was a man apart in a way I can’t recall ever seeing in competitive hockey. He didn’t really speak to his teammates on the ice, during warmups, or waiting for a whistle.
He basically had only one play: gather up the puck, storm up the ice, cross the blue line, and fire it – hard – at the Monsters’ goal.
And he was terrifically effective, with an assist and two goals, including the overtime game-winner. His raw speed and skill level — despite basically not being able to integrate his play with
his teammates — was an indicator how far they would need to go to rise beyond Tier III.
Hockey Nights in Fresno:
Recent years have been full of bad news about hockey in Fresno and it was far from clear the Monsters would get to play this season.
First Time Experience: Instead of a shootout, after the first overtime the game went to 3-on-3 second overtime. Thanks to Mr. Ozols, there was no need to find out what happens after that.
Nice Touch: The freshly built beer garden at one end of the rink.
My Wife Will Be Happy to Read This: There were no fights.
She Will Be Happy to Read This, Too: Moves are afoot to ban fighting in US junior hockey, according to this New York Times story with a dateline from Fresno of all places.
Odds & Ends: Fresno game report;box score.