Sunday, April 22, 2018

The North Carolina Courage - A Tale of Two Halves

One of the reasons I love going to watch soccer matches in Cary, North Carolina is because of the on the pitch seats. It's a really fun place to watch the match. This time I was there to watch the NC Courage and it was pretty dang awesome. The Courage were the runners up in the National Women's Soccer League last year and, judging from last year's trip to see NCFC, the Courage draw as big a crowd as the men. And that's the way it ought to be. This sport has been more of a women's sport in the US for years and it's great when people are there for it and the stands are filled with girls looking up to women proving that they can succeed better than the men.

The first half was all about the Courage. Every pass went home and the Courage kept the Utah Royals' goal under siege. The Courage's first goal came when a corner kick was bounced out away from the goal and Merritt Mathias smashed a long distance seeing-eye ball through everybody, off the top bar, and into the goal.

The second half was a different story. The Royals obviously made adjustments during the break and they absolutely dominated for the first 35 minutes. The Courage played like they were flustered and two glaring mistakes on their part gave the Royals a 2-1 lead. The first Royals goal came when a Courage defender headed a ball toward the goal over her own goalie and a Royals player tapped it in with her head. The second came when the Courage's goalie kicked a ball right to a Royals player and got it kicked right back past her.

Then, in the 80th minute the Royals goalie made her own unforced error. She charged out - way out - to try to kick the ball clear. She wiffed and the ball deflected directly to a Courage player who made a soft kick into the net. After that things settled into "this is going to be a tie" mode. Both sides played well enough and the Royals made a decent shot on goal in the last couple minutes, but neither side got the momentum going.

In the end, it was a 2-2 tie. The Royals seem to be specializing in these and this was their third tie of the season. On the other hand, the Courage are still the only team with a winning record in the NWSL.


The NC Courage mascot vamping before the match.

And so it begins.




This guy kept running in front of my seat and partially blocking my view.



Mudcats (Try Two)

Three years ago, the Carolina Mudcats were one of the first bucket list teams that I went to see. That time, I left when the game was interrupted by a rather intimidating lightning storm. Standing on the concourse, I heard one of the kids working the game tell his fellow employees that the game was called, but they weren't announcing it because they didn't want people to leave while the lightning was a danger. I left anyway, and when I got back to my hotel room and turned on MiLB.tv found out the game had been resumed.

So, this year was try two. As I drove to the Raleigh/Durham/Cary area that day the temperature (per my car's thermometer) got over 80 degrees. I showed up at the stadium in shorts and a t-shirt. As I got out of my car a hefty wind kicked up. I swear, in the next twenty minutes the temperature dropped 10 degrees. I bought a jacket at the team store, but should have probably gone for the blanket everyone else was getting.

The wind was everywhere and came from all directions. The moment I thought I'd found a place where I could get some shelter it changed directions. And it got colder and colder. Finally, half way through the 5th, I was done. It was either leave or watch my fingers turn blue. Buies Creek was winning and looked to have the game under control. It may have been fortuitous that I left when I did because as I was driving out (car thermometer now saying 49 degrees) fireworks went off signifying a homerun and the Mudcats took the lead. If I'd stayed long enough to see that I might have stayed for more of the game and I'm not sure if I'd have survived the hypothermia. BTW, for those of you who think I wussed out, well, I did, but I made it longer than 90% of the crowd. From about the third inning onward there were far more employees in that stadium than there were fans.

So, now I have to figure out how to get back to see the Mudcats again. It'll probably be next year. I'll be able to combine seeing it with a trip to see the new team in Fayetteville. I will see a complete Mudcats game eventually. They have a cool theme and they put on a good show and Mother Nature can't run me off every time.
Click on pics to make larger





Friday, April 20, 2018

Hunter Greene Report

Just watched Greene pitch in Wednesday's game against  the South Bend Cubs. The good news was that he looked like he was more in himself and not pushing overly hard like he was in the first game. He got his fastball up to 101mph (tying Chapman's record for speed at Dayton), but he hit the batter with that pitch so I'm not sure it's something to brag about at this point.

He was working on his inside-outside placement of pitches and doing better with it when he was using breaking pitches. In fact, he was pitching better with them than he did with the fastballs. The fastballs seem to be coming in a little too straight and predictable; single A batters aren't having too much trouble putting wood on them. In the first game he seemed to have a rising fastball that worked, but it didn't show up this time. He also seemed to have a high breaking pitch last time; it only showed up a couple times in this game. In the end, his breaking stuff looked more effective than his fast pitches. When the rain got bad in the third inning, Greene got flustered and that led to the rain delay and his removal from the game (he was near his allotted pitch count if not over).

All that said, he's a pretty solid single-A pitcher. That means he still has control issues. However, it's encouraging that they are having him work the inside and outside of the plate. I take that as evidence they aren't going to try to just make him into a Chapman type hurler. I'll be more impressed when they get him working the top of the strike zone as well as the bottom. His fastballs need help. They're entirely too hitable. If they can get that ball to hook a little or rise above a swinging bat this guy might just become unstoppable. But that's all in the future. He needs time to settle, adjust, learn, and grow. Hopefully that means he'll get a full season in Dayton before being skipped over the useless FSL and moved directly to AA Pensacola. In the meantime, expect sporadic reports here.

Below is a break down his pitches as best I could.



Sunday, April 15, 2018

Battle of the Birds: Wood Ducks v. Pelicans

Baseball came back to Kinston NC last year. Because you can't name your team after any group unless they are Eurocentric (Vikings, Knights, Irish, etc.), they didn't start back up as the Kinston Indians; they started up as the Down East Wood Ducks. It's a shame because the Indians'  "K" logo is better than the Wood Ducks' logo.

However, the Wood Ducks are clearly all in on the new logo.

The Duck Signal
In any event, The Wood Ducks were facing the the Myrtle Beach Pelicans on this fine day and both sides had some of their top prospects playing, although it was a bit dissappointing that the #2 prospect for the Texas Rangers was only DHing.
For the Wood Ducks, Taveras (#2 Texas prospect) had a not-so-good day at the plate going 1/4 with 2 strike outs and no walks. On the other hand, Tejeda (#27 Texas prospect) had a really solid night at the plate going 2/3, getting a double, scoring once, and getting a walk. The Wood Ducks' pitcher, Matuella (#30 Texas prospect) got shelled. He left the game after 3+ innings and 7 hits, 3 strike outs, 3 walks, and 7 runs.

The Myrtle Beach Pelicans' pitcher, Hudson, didn't do too much better despite being a higher prospect in his organization (#13 Cubs). He left after 5 innings and 5 hits, 4 strike outs, 1 walk, and 3 runs. To be honest, at least on this night a good portion of the difference was the fielding - not the pitching.
Aremis Ademan, the Cubs #1 prospect was at short and his play there was sharp. The Pelicans' fielding was sharper than the Wood Ducks overall and Ademan seemed a step faster than his teammates. At the plate he went 2/5 with one of the hits being a home run (however, do not give too much credit for that - in the 9th inning the Wood Ducks' manager put his 1st baseman in to pitch and Ademan tagged a slop-ball). He scored twice, struck out twice, and batted 1 run in. I make it a pretty good probability that Ademan will be at the Smokies before the end of this year.

---------

The Wood Ducks' stadium is an old style stadium that has been updated somewhat. If you've gone to a game in the Appalachian league at Burlington, Princeton, or Bluefield you've seen this type of field before. It's a solid field without all the unused bells and whistles that you find at so many modern minor league parks. It also has some of the flaws of the older fields. Don't buy tickets in the reserve section. To be honest, you can see the game better from the cheap seats. They've done the truly bad thing of selling all the seats close to field in the reserved sections to corporate season ticket holders. This is bad in that it makes it look like the game is poorly attended (these type of ticket holders quite often leave their sections empty and most did this day) and it makes people like me who buy what they think are front row tickets (section 6 row A seat 12) not so thrilled. I left my seat before the game even started and went to sit on the grass embankment on the first base side. For those of you with more sense than me who show up early there are tables and standup bars out there which would be even better.


The crowd was 2,500+ and they were into it. Kids were running everywhere. Every foul ball had a pack of feral kids in hot pursuit. The fans were chanting, clapping, and cheering the Wood Ducks on even after the Wood Duck manager had given up on the game and put his 1st baseman in to pitch the 9th inning. Which, BTW, was a pretty crummy thing to do in an early season game that wasn't going anywhere near extra innings in the season's first homestand in front of 2,500+ fans. Even if the manager just wanted to end a runaway game it would seem to make more sense to put in a regular reliever who wouldn't be throwing slop-balls, giving up hits, runs, and extending the game.

In any case, if you are in the Kinston area you should go out and watch a game or two. These old stadiums are vanishing and being replaced with modern mediocrities. And, this is obviously baseball country. The fans love the game and put more passion into rooting for their team than I've seen in the vast majority of minor league teams I've visited.
There may be no crying in baseball, but apparently there's prayer.

And theft.
A catch (click to enlarge)
Can't win'em all.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Buies Creek at Campbell University

While waiting for their new stadium in Fayetteville, the Astros have A+ team has been housed at Campbell University (The Fighting Camels). This is their second and final year there, so I made a trip down to catch a game.

The BC Astros only had one of their mothership's top prospects playing at center field, Ronnie Dawson (#21 Baseball America). On this night he did well enough on defense, but went 0/4 in at bats.

More interestingly, the Salem Red Sox had their #6 prospect pitching, Darwinzon Hernandez. He made it thru 5+ innings with 6 strike outs, 3 walks, and 2 hits with 1 earned run. He has an interesting delivery which appears to do a good job of hiding the ball at the beginning of his throw, but leaves him off balance and bouncing backward at the end of the pitch. It wasn't pretty, but he was effective. Below is an view of his style (amalgamated from a couple pitches).
click on picture to enlarge
Of note, the BC Astro's starting pitcher kept pace with his opposite. Carson LaRue went 5 innings, got 6 strike outs, gave up 1 walk, 4 hits, and 0 runs.
In the end, after the two starting pitchers left Salem's offense proved too much for BC. The two other prospects on Salem didn't do much at bat (Netzer[#18] 1/4 hits, 0 BB, 0 SO - Dalbec[#16] 0/4, 1 BB, 3 SO). The most impressive hit was a homerun by Chris Madera (center fielder). The final score was Salem 4 - BC 2.

Up

He's off!
The Ump intervenes in the discussion over who's buying the beer tonight.
 

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

A Hunter Appears in Dayton

Y'know, I was really hoping that Hunter Greene would get assigned to the Greeneville Reds in both of their first years. It would have been worth it for the wordplay if nothing else. However, it looks like the Reds have made the proper choice when they assigned him to the Dayton Dragons.

On Monday, I watched as Greene started for the first time for the Dragons against the Lake County Captains. He only pitched three innings, but those three innings were instructive. In those innings he got eight strike outs and gave up no walks, but he also allowed five hits and two runs. It was a mixed bag which showed a lot of talent as well as a need to develop his talents.

CAVEAT: I'm not a pitching coach and anybody that even considered hiring me to do that job should take a quick trip to the loony bin. What follows comes from my memory of watching Hunter Greene pitch two days back and I've not gone back to break his pitching down in slow motion or anything that would lend credence or weight to my *ahem* "analysis." That said, here is my totally unqualified analysis:

To my eye, he got away with pitches that won't work at AA or above. He fooled a number of single A batters who pursued balls that ran out of the strike zone. He also seemed to have a tendency to pitch from behind, giving up two or three balls before coming back to get his strikes. I also think he was trying a little too hard - pushing to hurl the ball with velocity and losing control as a result.

He was throwing fast balls and what appeared to be fairly good breaking balls. The fast balls seemed to come in two types. There was a fastball down which seemed often to go too low at a (maybe too?) steep angle (sliders?). There was also a fast ball high which seemed to rise as it came in and left batters swinging under it. The breaking balls seemed to vary in the amount of their breaks from ones that looped a little and still remained fairly high to ones that dropped rather severely. I didn't spot a change-up and don't remember the announcers calling one either. Most of his strike outs seemed to come from the breaking balls either getting over the plate or causing the batters to chase them out of the zone. The batters were clearly looking for his fast balls and I don't think they were prepared for pitches that broke.

I want to see how Greene is doing in his fourth or fifth start. By that point he should have settled down and I expect his pitching will improve as he goes along. At the same time, there will be more video to study and batters should be better prepared for him. The batters seemed totally unprepared for his breaking stuff on Monday. A month or two in that should not be the case and we should get a better feel for exactly how good those pitches are.

All-in-all, I'm sad to say that Hunter Greene is exactly where he needs to be to develop his talents and we shouldn't be seeing him in Greeneville at all this year unless he regresses in some manner that I do not anticipate. Hopefully he'll stay in Dayton for a year to eighteen months to develop and then move up to AA and start working his way up through the tougher leagues. There's a lot of potential here and, God willing, the Reds won't push him up too hard or too fast so that when he hits the MLB he'll be as good as he ought to be.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Carolina Thunderbirds: We Do Hockey Here

So, I entered "Carolina Thunderbirds" into my phone's map program and followed its directions. It took me further and further off the beaten path and I was getting nervous that I was going to end up at a factory with the same name or a head office for the administrators tucked in somewhere (don't laugh both have happened to me). Then I see a football stadium and the next thought was "Aw crud, the local college might be Thunderbirds or something, 'cuz it looks like that's where I'm heading." But, I drive past the football stadium and the directions app tells me to park across the street in an almost abandoned lot next to a big building. I'm early, but not that early so I check the map again. I look up the actual address, punch it in, and confirm I'm in the right place. I look around again. There are about twenty cars in the lot and I can't even see a door. Finally, a group of kids and parents come from behind the building and they are hauling sticks and gear to their cars. I get out of my car and backtrack their trail to the back of the building and, sho enuf (the Shogun of Harlem), there was the entrance with pics of the Thunderbird players on the doors. It's an annex to the fairground and the entrance doesn't face the parking lot; it faces the fairgrounds. And everything got better from there.

Click on picture to make larger

And so it begins . . .
Wants the pitch high and outside
Wants the pitch in the middle of the zone
The reason you might not want to buy a ticket next to the players' bench.
Eyes on the puck.
The Carolina Thunderbirds are the newest team in the FHL (unaffiliated hockey) and well on their way to becoming the gem of the league. Attendance at the rink averages 2,224 which is about 1,300 more than the next team in the FHL averages (Danville). In comparison, the Norfolk Admirals, an ECHL team (affiliated hockey AA), only averages 2,390. The fact that the Thunderbirds only have about 3,500 seats as opposed to the Admirals 8,000+ further tells you who is doing well in this comparison.

The game was a lot of fun. Carolina put the puck in the net twice in the first period and seemed to have the game well in hand, outplaying the Cornwall Nationals all over the ice. In the second period, Carolina continued to be dominant in its time of control and number of shots, but the Nationals made their shots count and evened it up. The third was hard fought from both sides with both scoring to make it 3-3. Then, with about seven minutes left Carolina took the lead 4-3. However, the Nationals didn't go away quietly. The rest of the period seemed to consist entirely of the Thunderbirds' goal being under siege. In the end Carolina held out and won 4-3, which meant it won the rubber match of a three day series against the second ranked team in the league.

The "arena" is not exactly what you'd call professional level, but that's part of the charm. I'm pretty sure the kids I saw leaving as I came in were from a kid's league and I can see the local beer league playing here too. They had decent concession stands which had nothing fancy, but served coffee and hot chocolate which were both vitally important because the temperature inside the arena was twenty degrees colder than it was outside. To be fair, it was 65 outside because North Carolina was going through a February heat wave, but I didn't know it going in and left my coat out in the car. The souvenir stand was a couple folding tables and they were wiped out. This was the third day of a series and they'd been hit hard by the crowds from the last two days. I grabbed one of the last few hats and a puck and would have bought the $50 jersey except they were completely sold out. Then I got bushwacked by Girl Scouts and ended up buying a box of thin mints because every time they ambush me I end up buying cookies (if you can say no to them you are a heartless monster).

Inside, the seat I was on was a cushioned folding chair right up on the glass and it was great except the benches were to my left and hockey players are big. It was hard to see around them to watch what was going on at the other end, but it was awesome for the end I was on. There is no big screen playback here or announcements from the refs. You actually have to pay attention to the game. For a shoestring budget hockey operation, they did a pretty good job of keeping it fun. They did the ubiquitous chuck-a-puck with a greater number of prizes than I've seen at many places, played some music, had their mascot running around beating a drum, and kept yelling "What's the word?" to which the crowd would yell back "Thunderbird!" Personally, I was waiting for "Thunderbirds are go!", but maybe that's just my inner geek yearning to be free. I had to look up the phrase they were yelling and it turns out to be a way people have started songs since at least the 60's (apparently first in reference to the car and later, jokingly, as a reference to the terrible wine).

It's fun, dirt cheap, and there isn't a bad seat in the house. Buy a ticket if you can (they've had sell outs) and go watch some hockey in the Winston-Salem area.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Carolina Hurricanes: Great Crowd, Great Game

You know, I can almost always find something to complain about at any stadium-field-pitch-rink, but I have to say it's a little hard to do with the Carolina Hurricanes. Great crowd. Great game. Lots of fun. Lots of seating on the bottom area with adequate size seats. The only thing that I can gripe about is the fact that in order to get so many seats in the lower area it has really old fashioned steep stadium seating. More modern setups would have that broken up entry to the seats some rather than requiring people to rappel down a couple hundred feet to get to their seats closer to the glass. Other than that, I'm coming up short on my complaining and  it's annoying.

Click on pictures to make them bigger:
Outside
The Mascot is a dog?
And so it begins . . .


If you screen the goalie too much he might thump you on the back of the head.
I guess if you are a cheerleader for hockey you have to be kept in a glass cage.

Final Hurricanes 3 - Avalanche 1
The game started with the refs showing a distinct disinterest in calling many penalties and the first period was hard fought. Finally, the Colorado Avalanche scored a goal, but within seconds the Hurricanes tied it again. The second period was equally hard fought, but the refs showed more interest in keeping the skaters from killing each other and there was a fair amount of penalty time all around. The Hurricanes even had to kill a 4 minute penalty at one point. It turns out that the refs frown upon you hitting another player in the face with your stick. Who knew? There were no goals in the second, but the Hurricanes were getting the upper hand thru much of the period. Then, the third began and the Canes scored at about the 35 second mark. The Avalanche seemed to gear up a bit after that and the play evened out for a bit, but then the Hurricanes scored again and had some breathing room. They went on to win 3-1 and passed the Columbus Blue Jackets to move into a wildcard slot.

Comments: I went down to my seat once and then climbed back up to get some supper. In so doing, I realized two things. First, if I stood at the top I'd have just as good, or better view than at my seat in row F. Second, I was going to need an anchor rope and pitons if I had to make that climb again. If I'd actually spent a month's salary to be on the glass I'd probably have gone back down. However, I left that climb to the young and skinny and stood at the top to watch the game. It was my choice so I can't complain too much. However, I do have a suggestion for the Hurricanes' organization. Go to a minor league baseball park and look at the stand up bars they are putting behind the last row of seats where people can eat, drink, or just hang out while watching the game. Those would be a great addition to your areas at the top of the seating cliff.

The crowd was larger than I expected, having heard derogatory comments about attendance in Carolina and jeez were they enthusiastic. They had certain unique things like starting periods with a hurricane warning (woulda been cool if they used it after goals too) and yelling out when the word "red" was sung during the star spangled banner, although that was messed up a little because the girl singing it stepped on them. She thought she was in an operetta and as the song went on the last word at every comma and end of every line got loonger and looooooonger. People who sing it that way are funny and I'm never quite sure they realize that all these people are here for a reason other than to listen to them (there's a reason people start clapping half way thru the last line).  Prices were reasonable and I got out with a hat and puck for about the same price as I did yesterday at an ECHL (AA hockey) game which says really good things about the Hurricanes. I've already said my peace about what it says about the ECHL team.

Anyway, I'm sold. Where I live, I's about equidistant from the Hurricanes and the Predators. The Predators have a kind of frantic energy about them that screams "hot new team", "young fans." On the other hand, the Hurricanes feel like a team that's been kicking around for a while. There were even some people wearing Whalers gear and we all remember how cool that logo was:
So, I choose the Whalers err . . . Hurricanes. I'll be back. Not sure when I'll be able to budget the time and money again, but I'll be back. I probably shouldn't warn 'em tho. They might lock the doors.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Norfolk Admirals: Good Game, Poor Fan Service

Yesterday was spent traveling across the width of Virginia so that I could watch the Norfolk Admirals. It was a fun game and the rink is well set up for the crowd to watch. The people working were friendly and helpful, but the crowd was small. It was a shame.

Click photos to make larger:

Adironack Thunder stops a puck.
Get that puck.
The reason it's great to have a seat on the glass.

The game was a lot of fun. The Thunder took the early lead and the Admirals came back to tie a couple times. Then the Admirals caught fire and the third period was almost entirely theirs. Darik Angeli got a hat trick and, yes a few people threw their hats out onto the ice. No, I did not throw the hat I'd just bought.  All in all, it was a great game to watch and exactly the kind of thing that should be bringing in the fans.

They weren't there.

By the time everybody was seated it looked like about maybe 1,000 people and a whole bunch of empty seats. There was a screw-up with my seat. My ticket was for A1 in my section and the first seat that actually existed was A2.  As the couple who were there moved to the left both they and the usher joked about how it wasn't like the row was going to fill up anyway - the front row - on the glass. After the usher left, the couple explained how the Admirals used to be an AHL team - a really good AHL team - and locals aren't happy to have an ECHL substitute foisted upon them (not really the entire story they went from being a big deal ECHL team to the AHL and now they're back again).  They also weren't happy that the team had been abandoned by the Nashville Predators leaving them unaffiliated (the owners fired the president who negotiated the deal and it went away). The couple was right. Nobody else showed up and sat in our row. In fact, there were a lot of on the glass seats that were empty.

It was the worst attended game I've been to in a while and about a month back I drove to a Wheeling Nailers game in almost white out conditions, with inches of snow already on the ground, and temperatures near 0 fahrenheit.  And it's a shame. There is so much potential here.

Suggestions:

First, get people in. Heck, give away a few thousand tickets per game. Give all the kids at the local high schools two tickets each. Give out tickets to ships in harbor or units at JEB Little Creek - Fort Story. Better yet, give tickets out to locals who work the shipyards and will be around to buy some in the future. Make your money up on the backside thru concessions and/or souvenirs.

Second, lower prices. YOUR PRICES ARE HIGHER THAN NHL PRICES and you are an unaffiliated ECHL (hockey AA) team. A beer and sausage was $15+. There might have been a reason that nobody was buying concessions other than my stupid self. Worse, your prices for souvenirs were high to ridiculous. I can buy a puck from the Wheeling Nailers for $5 (and they sell yours for that price too), the Cincinnati Cyclones for $6, and the Toledo Walleye for $6.53. Yours? $7.  As best I can tell a puck costs less than $2 and let's assume the sticker is an additional $1. There's no reason for your price point as an ECHL team. Even worse than that, I really, really like your jerseys, but that price point is beyond ridiculous. Let's compare your prices to NHL prices:







Notice which jersey costs the most? Sure, your jersey is cool, but it's not better-than-the-NHL cool.  And just so you can't blame it on economy of scale, here are your ECHL competitors' jerseys:



Your price point is not only unrealistic, it is actively harmful to your brand. There were lots of people wearing jerseys in attendance, but I only saw three wearing your jersey. When you bring the price down to a reasonable level ($120) email me and I will snap one up. Until then, good luck with your excess inventory.

Third, raise the level of enthusiasm. Just playing music loudly and doing the normal kiss-cam, dance-cam stuff really doesn't cut it anymore. Have people go into the crowd more and work it with prizes. Your announcer needs to hype things up more and you need to make energy between periods. That may have been the most lackadaisical chuck-a-puck I've ever seen. I know this is harder to do when the crowd is smaller and really, you did most of the things a little. You just need to up the pace and frequency. And it would help if you had bigger crowds to feed the enthusiasm (see First above).

You have so much potential here. Please turn it around.