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Sputtering to the finish line

Sunday, September 19, 2021: Stockton, California

Modesto Nuts 7, Stockton Ports 0

Please bear with me for a minute.

I’m going to talk about promotion and relegation.

North American sports fans who haven’t run for the exits may be asking, ‘What is promotion and relegation?’

It’s the professional sports structure, well known in European soccer but used widely elsewhere and in other European sports, in which the last place or low-finishing teams in a league are relegated to a lower league while the winners are promoted into the higher league.

For popular sports in large countries that pyramid goes a long way – in Germany for example, the soccer league system has 13 tiers.

But what on earth does that have to do with the flippin’ Stockton Ports?

The game I watched, the last game of the weird, pandemic-flavored 2021 minor league season, reminded me of many of the flaws, from a spectator’s or fan’s standpoint, of the North American minor leagues, our own version of the league pyramid in baseball and hockey.

Stockton-Ports-Banner-Island-infield
Stockton Ports players on defense on Sept. 19, 2021.

The minors are made of farm teams, directly subservient to their major league parents.

The question is: is it much a sport if a team isn’t serious about winning the game it’s playing?

What you often get in the minors is not the best effort to win with the players on the roster, but rather to give the big league club a chance to look at talent or give prospects a certain amount of time.

Case in point: Stockton’s starting pitcher was dealing through four scoreless innings.

And he got the hook after four innings in favor of a fellow with a six-plus ERA who proceeded to load the bases without getting an out.1In his defense he managed to get out of that jam with one run, but still.

I’d rather see a game where the goal of the team is to win, as opposed to playing exhibition games to ‘develop the talent.’ 2For all I go on about relegation the Ports would have nowhere to go down to but the Arizona instructional league. Still, imagine if the champs moved up to AA. Anyway, Visalia did even worse in ‘Low-A West’.

Which was in short supply at this low end of the A’s organization, which sent up a parade of sub-.200 hitters against a Mariners affiliate who sent up many players with averages over .300. The final outcome was no fluke.

Anyway, Stockton’s waterside ballpark was a pleasant-enough venue to take in a baseball game, though the modest attendance helped me manage any lingering pandemic crowd anxiety.

Stockton-Ports-outfield
View from the outfield of Banner Island Ballpark in Stockton, California, during the Ports’ final game of 2021.

It wasn’t even all that hot by Central Valley standards, and a passing cold front had even left the air clean, but the sun and lack of shade tell me Banner Island Ballpark might be a better place to visit at night.

Pay attention: The crowd, such as it is was quite disengaged, perhaps adding to the desultory nature of the experience, not really cheering for good plays by the home squad, including a nice double play. They did applaud when home-team pitcher Edward Baram got the hook during the ninth. It was poignant to think that for some of these players this game will turn out to be the end of their professional careers.

What’s in a name?: I’m calling them the Ports, but the team actually for this game and the previous few went by Caballos de Stockton as part of some promotional cosplay beyond my comprehension.

stockton-ports-caballeros
Stockton Ports players decked out in their Caballeros uniforms for the final game of 2021.

This includes circus-in-town uniforms with teal, purple and fuscia striping because that has something to do with hourses3I don’t actually think so.

Pandemic Theatre: The first base coaches wore face masks. No one else did.

Dropsies: The catchers dropped many, many third strikes, but no batters came close to making a play of it at first.

Game recap here and here. Box score here and here.

Does the flame still burn?

Monday, January 20, 2020: Stockton, California

Stockton Heat 5, Colorado Eagles 0

This was my third time watching hockey in Stockton, and every time the crowd is smaller.

To be fair, a game played on the Monday afternoon of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday may not be a representative sample for a team that usually plays night games, but attendance concerns have been documented elsewhere , along with rumors of a possible move.

Subsequent to my visit, the team signed a one-year lease extension  with the city, which should be short enough to keep the rumors flying.

View of Stockton Arena, home of Stockton Heat hockey.

I hope they stay — it’s nice to have another quality, affordable hockey outlet that’s in driving range. And the arena is a good venue with good sightlines.

In any case, the Heat got the drop on their opposition, scoring 26 seconds in, and cruised to an easy win. Appears to be representative of what was shaping up to be a solid season, with the team in playoff position when the 2019-20 season was abruptly ended.

Thunder rumbles: On my previous visit in 2018, I was surprised not to see anybody wearing Stockton Thunder sweaters. (The Heat replaced the Thunder in 2017 as part of minor league realignment that brought the higher-level AHL to California.)

Stockton Thunder jerseys for sale at Stockton Heat game
Thunder jerseys were for sale at a premium price to mark 15 years of hockey in Stockton.

This year, the Heat were leaning in to the 15th anniversary of pro hockey in Stockton, with a special third jersey and Thunder merchandise for sale.

Ms. Hockey Wanderer is sad to learn: Two grown man had a fight. On the ice.

Attendance: 1,445

Recap here.

Box score here.

(Next Door to) Where it all Began

Sunday, March 17, 2019: Buffalo, New York

Buffalo Sabres 4, St. Louis Blues 3 (SO)

It wasn’t the first time I watched the Buffalo Sabres play at home.

But it’s been a while.

A long while.

So long ago that the were still playing in the Aud.

The Hockey Wanderer origin story comes out of Western New York.

An Elementary-school kid, less-than-ideal family life, bouncing around from school to school, who found a new obsession to help keep his mind off his troubles: the Sabres.

I watched the games on TV, I read about them in the Buffalo News. I listened to them on the radio where the play-by-play calls fired my imagination was fired and WGR-55 gave me the mistaken impression that “Sabre Dance” was a team jingle rather than a seminal piece of 20th century modern music.

And I will never forget the Christmas present I received when I was nine years old: tickets to the Sabres game four days later against the Detroit Red Wings.

The public skates on the site of the old Aud.

I remember the view of the ice from the cheap seats at the Aud. I remember that Danny Gare scored one of the Sabres’ goals. And I remember that the Red Wings scored with three seconds to go to tie it up. (I have double-checked the date and score and the four-decade-old memories are correct.)

As it turned out, I didn’t really see the game.

It wasn’t until the next year that my fourth-grade teacher deduced I was nearsighted, and quite dramatically so. I was basically taking in a white blur, surrounded by the Aud’s gold seats.

My dad never took me to another game in Buffalo. Having his car broken into during the game probably put a damper on the occasion for him. It was a cold ride back to Niagara Falls in late December without a passenger window.1My mom took me to a game at the Aud a few years later. A 7-3 rout of the Leafs. So the Sabres are undefeated in home games I attend.

The French Connection.

Anyway, life took me away from Western New York by middle school.  I’ve remained a fan, even though my other ties to the area are gone. I’ve seen the Sabres play far more often in Hartford, then later in San Jose.

But it was time to go back again.

THE VENUE

Not that it’s the same home — the Aud is long gone.

As for the two-decade old Marine Midland Arena HSBC Arena First Niagara Center2The sequential name changes to the Sabres’ arena tell a tale of consolidation in the banking industry, much as the San Francisco Giants’ ballpark did for telecom. KeyBanc Center, much of the local commentary about it is about how much of a dump it is.

Given those low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised, though my impressions may have been favorably influenced by good seats I picked up inexpensively on StubHub amid the debris of another blown season.

The arena’s surroundings appear to be rounding into shape, taking advantage of the waterfront location to create a pleasant public space.

The well-lit atrium.

The large, glassy atrium at the entrance offers a better transition between street and seat than I am used to. There appeared to be a wide variety of food, but I didn’t try any after sating myself before the game.

But some of the griping is justified. The seat was uncomfortable. My knees were jammed into the seat in front of me, and my chair looked like it has seen more than a few wet clean-ups.

THE GAME

The weird thing was, it was a great hockey game. I mean it shouldn’t be weird, but this is the Buffalo Sabres, a team sportswriter John Vogl recently and correctly described as being in the midst of an eight-year-long tire fire.

But the Sabres went against recent form and came to play against a tough opponent in St. Louis. They held possession on offense and passed successfully. They were willing to fight for the puck in the corners, and they were willing to get physical, most notably on a third-period shift when every non-goaltender on the ice landed at least one solid check against the Blues, generating a rousing ovation.

Maybe I’m their lucky charm.

St. Patrick’s Day eyesores.

Notes:
It was a 5:00 start on St. Patrick’s Day, and the Sabres celebrated for their drunken fans with special practice jersey that was a dog’s breakfast of Irish tropes.

Home and away:

I’m used to being among many Sabres fans attending games on the road. Here in Buffalo there were a truckload of Blues fans.

My wife will be happy to read this:
There were no fights.

Game wrap ups here, here and here.

A Whale of a Rink

Saturday, December 8, 2018: New Haven, Connecticut

Yale 3, Union 0 (men’s ice hockey)

Ingalls Rink looks spiffed up. It has a sheen on it.

It’s not the slightly scruffy place I remember going to as a middle and high schooler, when I could get my dad to drop me off to watch some inexpensive college hockey.

Turns out it did get a pretty big renovation a few years ago.

There are no bad seats.

But its fundamental virtues are unchanged. Underneath the wrapping of its distinctive Eero Saarinen-designed “Yale Whale” shape is a hockey rink — it’s small enough, and cold enough, to be a rink as opposed to an arena — with a capacity of 3500, hundreds of which are standing spots (including my $12 ticket).

As I kid, I remember a great hockey atmosphere. That hasn’t changed, as the contest between two squads performing well in the ECAC drew a knowledgeable and engaged crowd.

Other than the annoyingly shouty PA announcer, this is a great place to watch a hockey game.

And the hockey?

Setting aside for a moment the overall wretchedness of big-time college sports, D-1 college hockey is highly watchable; fantastic entertainment put on by skilled players.

It drove me nuts that the linesmen couldn’t agree on a font.

In this game, I’d say Yale had the edge in skill and speed but Union was highly disciplined, and it took all that skill and speed to break down the Union defense and put the Bulldogs on the board with 1.6 seconds to go in the first.

The scorer of that goal, Yale’s Joe Snively, was flat-out lit all night, a dominant force on the ice, and absolutely brought the house to its feet with his second goal, on a shorthanded breakaway. He’s an undrafted senior, and it’ll be interesting to see what his prospects are, but the pro game has been shifting to one where speed and skill count more than size, which should help him.

Farewell: There was a pregame ceremony for Bryan Hicks, who was about to referee his last college hockey game.

A note on video: I learned they have video review in college hockey. But I could find no highlights of this game in front of any paywall.

A note on music: The Yale band was there, and it played “Brass Bonanza,” as one should at a hockey game in Connecticut.

My wife will be happy to read this: There is no fighting in college hockey.

Game Reports: Here, and here

 

Box Score: Here

Dragons Are Real

Thursday, April 12, 2018: Nagoya, Japan

Chunichi Dragons 9, Tokyo Yakult Swallows 4

I sampled a baseball game on my first-ever trip to Japan.

It was a cultural experience, aided by my own incompetence.

As easy as it is for a foreigner to use Japanese public transit, it is tricky as hell to navigate something like a baseball game.

Bear in mind that I do not speak or read Japanese, and had spent all of four days in Japan.

I wandered up to the Nagoya Dome on a weeknight, entering the situation cold. My first mission: how to buy a ticket and get in.

Figuring out where to buy a ticket: simple enough.

Now where do I go?

What do I do when I get to the front of the ticket line: not so simple.

My goal: getting a ticket in the 2000-yen range (roughly 20 bucks). Through a series of very bad mime moves, pointing at the ticket price chart, and displaying two 1,000-yen bills, I did end up with a ticket.

Which turned out to be in the supporters’ section.

 

Talk about your full-on cultural experience.

This is one of the key things that makes Japanese baseball a bit different from the North American Way. These supporters’ sections, in the outfield, are constantly drumming, and singing, and chanting a series of chant-songs, following the cues of a cheer-master at the front of the section.

So this was interesting. I must have stuck out like sore thumb, but I went along with it, stood when everyone stood, cheered when everyone cheered, even high-fived my neighbor when Zoilo Almonte hit a first-inning home run as the home team put up three runs in the first frame.

This was not at all a sold out game, so after a couple innings trying to fit in, I snuck off and returned to one of the neighboring, non-supporter sections to take up my normal fly-on-the-wall observer role.

Other things that are different in Japan:
Pregame (and in-game) dance team.

Look out for the wall!

No warning track; just a painted line one would miss is looking up for a fly ball.

And the most civilized of all: the team offers paper cups at the entrance for people to carry their canned beer in. Can you even image that in the U.S.? At 700-750 Yen, the stadium beer is pricy for the local market, though obviously cheaper than in MLB.

Things that are similar:
Japan has video replay review, and it also takes forever in the Far East. All to overturn a bunt out with a 6-1 lead.

Pace of play — the game took more than three-and-a-half hours. So it’s understandable that after six, with the home team ahead 9-1, Dragons fans headed en masse for the exits, echoing the Dodgers look of their team’s uniforms.

Rueful observation: This would have been a great night for outdoor baseball.

Recap here.  Archived here.

Box score here.  Archived here.

The Heat is On

Sunday, February 25, 2018: Stockton, Calif.

Stockton Heat 4, San Diego Gulls 2

I can’t believe it’s been 11 years since I last ventured to Stockton for a hockey game.

Things have changed a bit.

The old Stockton Thunder of the low-minor-league ECHL are gone, replaced by a Calgary Flames farm team as part of the 2015 realignment of minor league hockey that put five members of the highest-level minor league, the American Hockey League, in California.

The AHL team came with a new identity, the Stockton Heat, with uniform and logo closely aligned with the Flames’, um, flame motif.

Despite the higher quality of play, I wonder if the bloom has gone off the rose somewhat for hockey in Stockton.

Attendance was announced at 3,370 — hopefully it was just a slow Sunday. Maybe they should have offered more Andrew Mangiapane  bobbleheads. I was there early but not early enough to get one.

Anyway, the game was proficiently played, in the way that has made pro hockey a little boring to watch, in which effective defensive disruption in the neutral zone made it hard for either team to maintain much in the way of interesting puck possession. On the other hand, most of the goals, as I recall, came on fast moving breakout plays.

The pest: Watching the warmups, I pegged the Heat’s Ryan Lomberg as a bit of a wise-ass. True to form the player, who was up and down from Calgary all season, was exactly that kind of on-ice pest you want on your team and hate on your opponent’s. His heads-up play netted him two assists.

A long road from Moline: Backup goalie C.J. Motte, signed that very day, wore a helmet painted for the Quad City Mallards.
The Heat starter, Ryan Faragher, had only been signed two weeks earlier.

Fashion notes: I saw an Erik Karlsson Senators jersey.
I saw a Teemu Selanne Jets jersey.
I saw many people wearing Heat jersey.
I even saw someone wearing a San Francisco Bulls jersey.

I did not see a single Stockton Thunder sweater.

The media today: The press row was largely deserted except, I think, for a couple people who work for the Heat.

My wife will be happy to read this: There were no fights. Though there was a third-period roughing incident that came close …

Game reports: here and here.

Box score: here

Highlights: here

Words and Music

Friday, Oct. 20, 2017: Slim’s, San Francisco

Paul Kelly 

It was ‘Darling it Hurts’  that grabbed me. I don’t recall what exactly inspired me to pick up ‘Gossip’ by Paul Kelly and the Messengers back in 1987 (on cassette!) but that was the song that immediately grabbed my attention, with its upbeat roadhouse rock married to a downbeat tale of a fellow who sees his ex walking the streets.

That terrific tune turned into my gateway into a terrific record, and indeed a musician I have followed ever since, even through the pre-Internet times when it was hard to track a musician from far-away Australia who never quite cracked the States commercially.

‘Darling it Hurts’ isn’t quite at the highest level of the Paul Kelly canon — it wasn’t on the greatest hits collection that cemented his position as an Australian icon — and I don’t know that I’ve hever heard it played live.

So what a damned treat and complete, grin-inducing surprise that Paul Kelly and the band closed the pre-encore part of their San Francisco set with that song.

Kelly has a career with rare staying power. After more than three decades of recording, at age 62, he’s still in a position to open a concert by playing his brand new album (it’s very good) in full, in order, and command the audience’s attention.

And then we were treated to the hits.

The band was in terrific form; the highlight for me watching guitarist Ash Taylor. With his red pants and flopping hair, he looked like he’d been time-machined from a Faces show in the 70s, but played much more cleanly, suiting the material. Longtime collaborators Vika and Linda Bull also added their vocals the range of the performance, which ranged from subdued and quiet tunes to all-out rockers.

Kelly has appeared regularly on this side of the Pacific, but typically in an acoustic setup with maybe a single sideman.

This may have been the last Paul Kelly show in North America before this tour. It was a cracker.

This tour was a special treat because its the first time in years — since 2002 I believe — that he has toured North America with a full band.

I’m not sure how the economics of this work; moving a seven-piece band around the United States to play club gigs may not pencil out that great. So it may between a long time and never before we see Paul Kelly in North America with full-band setup again. I’m glad I had the chance.

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: