Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Walks In The Old Ballpark

May 27, 2007: San Jose, Calif.
Stockton Ports 9, San Jose Giants 6
It turns out that I am better at wandering than sticking to hockey. In this case, at loose ends on Memorial Day weekend, I wandered down the 880 to San Jose. I will spare readers the paean to minor league baseball, as you have undoubtedly seen it before, but the Single-A experience in San Jose is distinctive. Number one: Municipal Stadium is old. Minor-league owners have been just as effective (maybe more effective) as major league owners at extorting taxpayers for new stadiums, complete with luxury boxes and the whole yadda yadda yadda.
San Jose's civic leaders are probably more susceptible than most to throwing money at desperate attempts to attract status symbols, but the California League isn't what they have in mind. I think the Athletics' planned move to Fremont also casts doubt about the future of the minor league game in San Jose. So, at least for now, 65-year-old Municipal Stadium abides.
I wouldn't say it's particularly architecturally distinctive, but it does have something of a vague Mission style. The best thing about it is that it is utterly unDisneyfied, in contrast to most new facilities. I was really taken with the interior concourse. The walls are lined with painted pennants of minor league teams present and (mostly) past. There are murals and displays outside the stadium tying together the history of pro baseball and the history of pro ball in San Jose. It's low-key but classy.
The other key ingredient to the game experience there is the barbecue area by the third base line. It's a large-scale operation, with a bunch of picnic tables nearby and its a treat to go early get some barbecue and a beer (good selection at reasonable prices by pro sports standards).
Unfortunately, there is no shade anywhere at the stadium, at least anywhere you can see the game. It was only in the mid-70s, but the San Jose sun was relentless. And what kind of idiot goes to a day ballgame and forgets his ballcap? That would be me. So, I confess, I left early. In my defense, I watched two and a half hours of baseball, though that only worked out to six innings, because the pitchers had trouble finding the strike zone, and infielders had trouble finding the ball. As for #18 of the Ports: they need a baseball version of the shot clock for pitchers like him.
I'll make one baseball observation: even a casual fan like me can see how thoroughly the Athletics (the Ports' parent club) teach and apply the Moneyball patient batting philosophy.
Local color: Adobe sponsors the pitch speed sign.
Hokey Minor League touch:
Forget dot racing: the San Jose Giants do horse racing by having horse-head cutouts, carried by some staffer below, "race" above the outfield wall between innings. Very old school!
Game reports here and here.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Hockey Wanderer is not worthy

These hockey bloggers were at the recent hockey World Championship tournament in Moscow -- on someone else's
tab. Now that's hockey wandering. They were worth every penny; offering
lots of interesting insights on hockey and Russia.I believe you can
find it all in one place if you root around at the Washington Capitals

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

You Stay Classy, Stockton

April 14, 2007: Stockton, Calif.
Idaho Steelheads 2, Stockton Thunder 1, 2 OT
Has it really been five weeks since I watched this
game? And four since I promised to blog about it?
Luckily, it was a memorable evening. After cancelling plans
for a longer getaway, I found a fun alternative,
Hockeywanderer style -- a lovely afternoon spent
meandering through the Delta, followed by some playoff
hockey. After an al fresco dinner at Valley Brew -
friendly staff, excellent beer, edible food -- we went
down to the Stockton Arena.
Now, Hockeywanderer is fond of places with quirks, with character, with local color. That's not what you get at the Stockton Arena. You get a late-model, state-of-the-art sports arena experience, as one would expect from a franchise and venue controlled by the IFG Group.
That has good aspects (cleanliness, wide concourses, adequate restrooms) and less-good aspects (relentless, loud CrapRock played during every break in play; robotically frequent fan exhortations on the p.a. and scoreboard.)
The Thunder are in their second season, and rewarded their numerous fans with their first playoff berth. This was their first home playoff game. The Thunder drew a pretty good-sized crowd, which is not always a given in the minor leagues.
The Game:
Five years from now, the winner of the 2007 Kelly Cup will be largely forgotten. But the players in this contest fought with every bit as much heart as a player fighting for the Stanley Cup. It was a taught, hard-fought contest, and the intensity was palpable. I thought the Thunder showed a little more flair, but aside from one scoring play, they were unable to finish. Their goaltender was spectacular.
The Steelheads for their part looked thoroughly well coached. This struck me as an excellent demonstration of how to be successful in the AA minor leagues, where teams are less likely to have players with game-breaking individual talent (since such talent would likely get promoted). Idaho played a flawless positional game -- they were not often caught out of place and were consistently in position to keep the Stockton attack from building. As I write this, Idaho is playing in the Kelly Cup finals and I am not one bit surprised.
The Atmosphere:
As I noted, IFG does not let a second go by during the game without some kind of stimulation provided for the fans. I might bring earplugs next time, just for the p.a. system. It looks like a lot of Stocktonites have taken to their hockey team -- caring enough to make sign supporting their team and, evidently, rookie Troy Bodie. Many wore bright yellow wigs, which makes sense -- because, to me, the sound of thunder evokes the sight of bright yellow fake hair.
They proved very vocal in their opinions of the refereeing -- especially after the ref blew the whistle after losing sight of the puck during a scramble that appeared to have led to a Stockton goal. This resulted in a loud, thunderous chants of "You Suck, Ref! You Suck, Ref!" This caused Mrs. Hockeywanderer to look at me in a certain way, as if to say, 'So, these are hockey fans, and you are a hockey fan, and therefore...'
Anyway, the fans were quite emphatic in their criticism of the officiating, even though I am confident that 90% of them had never seen a hockey game before Dec. 10, 2005. This including the 10-year-old girl who enthusiastically soloed on the "You Suck Ref" chant regularly through the third period and first overtime. Classy parenting!
Value proposition: This was actually my second Thunder game and it won't be my last. Sixteen bucks for good blueline tickets to a pro hockey game is a screaming deal, well worth the drive from the Bay Area. The cheap seats start at $9 for adults.
Confession: As a general rule, real fans stay to the end of the game. I declare an exception when one is: A) not a true fan of either team and 2) 80 miles from home. As overtime began, I said we would stay for one overtime (my hockey senses smelled multiple overtime) and that's what we did, so I was on Highway 4 when the winner was tallied.
Doing things right: The main beer advertisers are Fat Tire and Sierra Nevada. That IS classy.
Hokey Minor League touch: A few lucky fans were called to the ice for intermission musical chairs. This was flat out hilarious! They had to wear helmets, and they needed them too; those people were vicious competitors.
Game reports here and here.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

My City In Ruins

May 8, 2007: New Haven, Conn.

A recent trip to Connecticut sent me past the second place I ever saw a professional hockey game -- probably the location where I watched the most games.

Won't ever happen again, obviously.
The New Haven Coliseum was home to the AHL New Haven Nighthawks. When I was in middle school I forced my Dad to drag me to quite a few Nighthawks games. It was also the site of a few formative rock concert experiences -- R.E.M. before they got really big, Tom Petty (heading a great triple bill), um, ahem, Iron Maiden...but I digress. In all objective honesty, it was a 70s architectural travesty, but I still fondly remember the long ride down the outdoor escalators from the parking garage to the Orange St. entrance -- it helped build the pre-game anticipation. After the game there was the the fun of everyone honking their horns as they rolled down the circular parking ramps. So it's sad to see the place looking like the World Trade Center on September 12. Not that I was surprised. I was actually down on the corner of Orange and George returning a car to Hertz back in late 2005 -- they had already started demolishing the place then. This means they have probably taken more time tearing down the Coliseum than they spent building it in the first place. That's New Haven for you. I understand they have big plans to build some kind of cultural mecca in place of the old arena, though they obviously aren't in a big hurry. To me, tearing down a venue like that -- and not replacing it -- just reeks of a city that's thrown in the towel.
For what it's worth, the first place I every saw pro hockey was the Aud in Buffalo. I hear it's still standing, though it's been closed for a decade. And Buffalo built a new arena to replace it.