Saturday, September 27, 2014

California Glove: 6 sporting events in 3 cities in 7 days

I'm going to lead off this post with the following: 
1) Full disclosure: this was my mom's idea
2) Since the readership of this blog is limited, many of you will have heard much of this already.

Deal with it.

Every year, a group of guys from work go to a different NFL city to go to a game and do some outdoors / touristy things in the surrounding area for a long weekend.  In previous years, that led them to places like Dallas, New Orleans, Chicago, and Denver.  This year, the choice was San Francisco, notable because of the weather, the quality NFL team, and the other activities that would present themselves in that area -- in particular, other sporting events.  The Bay Area sports two baseball teams, two NFL teams, and a handful of college football teams, all of whom play at around the same time in the year.  As it turned out, the weekend of September 12th featured a Giants series, a Stanford football game, and the home opener for the new 49ers stadium.  Costly, but awesome.

As it turns out, I have a friend who lives in LA who I had not seen in a while, and it seemed like a trip to California would be a good opportunity to make a pit stop a short flight away to visit her.  However, since the trip to San Fran was from Thursday to Monday, I would have to force her to take multiple days off work mid-week to roll out the red carpet for my awesomeness.  That didn't seem very nice, so I thought about what I could do to burn a couple days in the middle of the week so I could get to LA by Friday and put less strain on her schedule.

At that point, it became obvious that this was a superb opportunity to not only do some touristy things in the area, but also take a big bite out of the list of MLB stadiums I need to visit.  I had already gone to 8 (PHI, PIT, BOS, WAS, BAL, ATL, CHC, MIA), and had recently decided that I had a life goal to see all 30 teams at home (I wouldn't bother with re-visiting if they built a new stadium, unless it was super-special-awesome).  As there are a total of 4 teams in California (after the Giants) and four days between Monday and Thursday, this was a prime opportunity.

Unfortunately, as it turned out, the schedule wasn't totally kind, but I was able to find games Tuesday in Oakland, Wednesday in San Diego, and Thursday in Anaheim (as it turned out, the following Monday would have been a Dodgers game, but we live and learn).  That ended up with a total of 6 professional / big-time-collegiate games live in the span of 7 days.  In the spirit of the trip,  my parents gave me the book "I Don't Care If We Never Get Back" about two recent graduates who went to games at all 30 baseball stadiums in 30 days.  I read the first couple chapters before leaving for the trip, but I promised myself that I'd find a way to finish it before I returned, in some kind of poetic fashion.  Anyway, here is the story of my substantially-less-stressful edition of that trip concept.

Friday, September 12th -- San Francisco Giants

These work trips have the Vegas-esque motto of "What happens in Anytown, USA stays in Anytown, USA", so I won't go into any exciting details here.  Not that there are too many -- remember, I'm there.  Anyway, Friday included a long, steep hike through an area around the Muir Woods that included redwoods, winding roads adjacent to cliffs over the Pacific, and discussions about Adrian Peterson's parenting skills.  The area is just ridiculously picturesque.
But the Giants-Dodgers game was in a couple hours, so we navigated rush hour traffic back to the hotel.  One questionably-legal cab ride later, we had arrived just outside AT&T Stadium, which is considered to be one of the best in the league at the moment, and you can see why when you get there.  Lots of brick, almost inconspicuous between the Embarcadero and the bay, and there was a palpable energy as two rival teams met up to begin a crucial three-game series.

We had seats scattered around right-center field, with the wall bordering McCovey Cove to our left.  My seats were right in the first couple rows behind the fence, which was great for viewing but also great for hecklers.  With the rivalry between these teams, there was a lot of yelling from fans at the other team's outfielders and at opposing fans, and there was just generally an animosity in the air.  My impression of the Giants fans, and this may be tainted by the fact that it was an important series, was that they knew their stuff but were very callous and verbally aggressive.  I saw a lot of yelling, snide remarks, and even a Giants fan faking to reach out a hand towards a Dodgers fan that had slipped on the stairs.  Just wasn't a positive environment.  Also, the stadium employees were awfully strict about language, loitering, and who sat where, and this seemed like a pretty common trend across the San Francisco area for whatever reason.  I don't know, it just rubbed me the wrong way.  Also, all beers were upwards of $10!  Who does that?

Anyway, good stadium, good location, good weather, good team, and at least the fans show up to the games.

Experience Rank: 5th

Saturday, September 13th -- Stanford Cardinal

Having gone to Penn and not its State counterpart, I have never really experienced big-time college athletics.  This was a great opportunity to see a game at what might as well be deemed the Perfect University, with great location, academics, and athletics.  We drove out to Palo Alto in the late morning for an early afternoon start, and drove into the lawn parking lot alongside young whippersnappers making sandwiches and lighting up grills.  We asked which direction campus was (n00bs) and headed over to an area next to the stadium, where there was a sort of pep / food rally pre-game.  There we found the band, cheerleaders, inflatable obstacle courses, food carts, and "Nerd Nation" shirts.  With the game being against Army, we had heard that there would be a pre-game ceremony honoring military service organizations, so we headed over to the stadium kinda early.

Stanford Stadium is part of a collection of several sports fields all next to each other on one side of campus, including some legit-looking baseball/softball fields.  The stadium is at ground level, but it's surrounded by a hill that ascends to the second deck of seats, so it's got a sort of deceptive feel to it from the inside versus outside.  The inside is relatively uneventful, although it was remarkably clean for a stadium (perhaps because it was still just the third week of the season and only the second home game).  Once in the stadium, a few things jumped out to me, and only one of them was remotely football related:

  1. Girls at Stanford > Girls at Penn
  2. Attendance at Stanford > Attendance at Penn
  3. Band performance style at Stanford = Band performance style at Penn (intentionally sloppy / flailing with witty commentary from the announcer)
  4. Tree as a mascot?  Creepy.  Male band leader dressed in black as a witch doctor?  Creepier.
  5. Barry Sanders' son plays running back for Stanford!  
We had seats in the upper corner of the stadium, so most of us just wandered the stadium to get a peek from different vantage points.  The game itself was a 35-0 rout, so there wasn't too much exciting to pay attention to anyway.  We then had dinner and gelato in Mountain View with all the tech geeks, which was nice if for no other reason than to claim I probably bumped shoulders with someone who has done or will do something important.

Experience Rank: 6th

Sunday, September 14th -- San Francisco 49ers

West Coast NFL Sundays are a challenge.  We all took a ferry to Alcatraz at 9 AM, and the final inactive lists were already available for the early games.  Just a lot to deal with.  At least the Niners game was the Sunday Night game, so that meant 5:30 local time, and plenty of time to find a bar to watch the early games.  We ended up catching the fourth quarter of a few games here and there while settling on a bar, and discussing how each of us was faring fantasy-wise (my opponent was out on the trip after all).  Originally, only four of the ten of us had tickets for the game, but like 4 hours before the game four other guys found decent tickets on Stubhub for $100 less than we paid for ours, so we had a veritable crew ready to go.

This was the first regular-season game for this stadium, and I bet a lot of locals were pretty bummed out from the logistical nightmare it presents.  It's about 45 minutes outside San Francisco itself, and we're sort of jumping ahead here, but it was all over the news afterwards that the traffic out of the game was so bad that people still hadn't left the complex after we had already left the game and gotten back to a bar near the hotel.  We ended up parking in some private lot a fair walk from the stadium and tossing a football around in an uncoordinated fashion, until we walked over into the opening-game festivities.  The stadium had giant images of players with the names "Inaugural" and "Season", and they were giving out "commemorative tickets", which is basically a big heavy reproduction of a generic ticket.  Odd giveaway but a cool memento for $325.

(apologies for weird panorama junk on the right side)

The stadium itself was even cleaner and brighter than the one at Stanford, having been used just two times ever, and featured such interesting features as a Fantasy Football wall and a four-story stack of suites above one of the sidelines.  Oh, and an accompanying app with which you can order food from any seat and have it delivered to you (without any sort of 30-minute guarantee, I'm sure).  There were fireworks, fancy National Anthem theatrics, a halftime performance by Snoop Dogg, and appearances form guys like Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and Barry Bonds (OK, he was just in the stands, but got a huge ovation).  We had seats about 25 rows behind one of the goalposts, which were pretty good for seeing how plays develop, as long as they're not on the far end of the field.  Having fantasy implications with one of my opponents sitting on one side and a Bears fan who was with us on my other side added to the conversation about every play.  All in all, it was a really fun night, and with the overall cost of the trip, I'm not so concerned that it cost me a round trip flight to Texas.

Experience Rank: 2nd

Monday, September 15th -- Bye (sorta)

With all of my work compatriots leaving in the morning, that left me all alone for the next day and a half until the A's game the following night.  Fortunately, there were plenty of tourist destinations left for me to visit, and there was an Eagles game on Monday Night Football to occupy a good three hours.  Even more fortunately, I had found an Eagles bar online that was a 15-minute bus or a 40-minute walk from the hotel I'd be staying at the next two nights.  But first, I had to get myself over to that hotel.

I took my overstuffed bag with me on a brief excursion to the famously crooked part of Lombard Street, Ghirardelli Square, and onto one of them famous cable cars, which took me within a block of my hotel.  And that was a godsend, because every other block in downtown San Francisco is a 5-story flight of stairs one way or the other, and carrying anything on your back is literally piling on.  Once I got to my Chinatown-tastic hotel and dropped my bag off, it was about 3 hours until game time, and so I threw my concern for my calves by the wayside and decided to walk.

Upon arriving at Jake's Steaks, I knew I was in the right place.  "Eagles Country" banner, bartender wearing an Eagles shirt, pre-game show on the TV.  I grabbed the last seat at the bar, ordered a happy-hour $3 beer and cheesesteak, and didn't leave that spot for the next four hours.  This wasn't a large place, but there were about 20 people gathered inside and outside the establishment living and dying with every play.  I was the only person I saw that actually lived in the Philly area (unsurprisingly), but met lots of Philly area transplants or children of Philly transplants, and it was a really cool experience.  Every time the Birds scored a touchdown the bartender disappeared into the back and came out with a tray of green Jell-O shots that he threw indiscriminately to people in the bar, as the Eagles' fight song played on the speakers.  Awesome experience, made more awesome by the late-game drama and twice-made field goal to seal the win.  And then I walked what seemed uphill both ways back to my "quaint" hotel room, and I may or may not have been sweating upon my return.

Experience Rank: 3rd

Tuesday, September 16th -- Oakland Athletics

I had about 8 hours to burn before heading over to O.Co Coliseum for my first solo sporting event ever, so I had a nice jaunt around more of San Francisco's tourist attractions.  I spent 2+ hours walking to and from the famous (read: as seen in the Full House opening credits) Painted Ladies, as well as the actual house from Full House.  Then I had a late lunch at a sufficiently well-reviewed and dumb-American-friendly Chinese restaurant in Chinatown, and somehow figured out how to take a bus over to the Golden Gate Bridge.  That thing is majestic as hell, but I was horrified walking over it.  It was just windy enough that I had to hold on to dear life to my hat and phone as I took photos, and in a similar fashion to the night before, I ended up back at my hotel in a sweat.

I then took the BART with all of the commuters out to the Coliseum, where I had to wait a few minutes before entering because I got there about 100 minutes before first pitch.  I mean, I'm here for baseball, what else am I to do but watch baseball?  Also, I had bought super-cheap seats in the outfield bleachers that are General Admission, so I wanted to ensure a good seat -- and by good seat, I mean a section that was selected based on the frequency of home runs hit in that stadium, as I had researched it.  What I did not realize was that I had decided to sit right smack dab in the middle of a bunch of hooligans.

First off, the Oakland Coliseum is not only one of the older stadiums in the league, it's also the only remaining one that serves both NFL and MLB teams.  This makes the decor drab and super-generic, but does provide a certain "charm" when you see the 20-yard-line painted in right field.  But once I got to Section 148, there was a lot more life infused into the area.  I got there an hour and 20 minutes before the game, and about 30 seats had already been occupied or saved by sweatshirts and A's flags.  Yes, flags.  As it turns out, this section houses some of the more dedicated and intense fans I've ever seen, a bunch of families who have season tickets and pass down traditions of cheers, superstitions, drum beats, and waving flags.

I was most certainly an outsider, but one of the women who had arrived before me was super-nice and asked who I was, why I was there, and whether I wanted some Popeye's chicken and a biscuit.  Let's just say I was able to skip the $15 expenditure on ballpark food for the evening.  I sat with a front-row seat to two shows: the A's continuing to decline on the field as they lost 6-3 to the lowly Rangers, and the unique cheers for Adam Dunn and Eric Sogard and jeers for the previously-unknown Rangers right fielder that held his post just yards from the crowd.  And every inning you'd hear "Hey fans!" coming from the speakers as an overzealous brightly-dressed woman interviewed some of the few fans that managed to come to the game or awkwardly draped her arms over their shoulders as they sang "Take Me Out to the Ballgame".

Experience Rank: 4th

Wednesday, September 17th -- San Diego Padres

Woke up, grabbed some See's Candy, and a train, plane, and bus later, I was at my "hotel" in downtown San Diego.  I put quotes there because I'm not sure hotels typically have: faded stickers on the elevator buttons to tell you which floor it is, shared bathrooms with toilets that have been clogged because European guys don't want to find a trash can, a 10x10 room with basically a cot and a window that won't close, and prices under $50 a night in the middle of a West Coast metropolis.  But I was in town for less than a day, so the price was right.

Upon arriving I basically just dropped my bag off and walked in the direction of PETCO Park, taking what looked like a scenic route along the southern coast.  I got to the stadium around 5:00, and was surprised to be let through the gate, as normally you aren't allowed into stadiums until 5:30.  What I discovered was that there's a limited concourse and bleacher seating area that's open a half hour earlier, and affords fans the chance to sit on a man-made beach and look through the right-center-field wall at the away team's batting practice.  Well, lucky for me, the Padres were playing my hometown Phillies that night, so I settled in to watch... well, mostly relief pitchers shagging fly balls and kids chasing after batting practice home runs.  There were a couple creepy guys trying to snag autographs from Phillies players they clearly had never heard of, and unfortunately Ken Giles wasn't responsive enough to answer my inquiry about whether he prefers Ken or Kenny.

After about 45 minutes of hanging out, I headed around the concourse to my real seat, which by a stroke of fortune was about 9 rows behind home plate.  I walked through what was basically a small food market with fresh fruit, full cakes, and an array of other a la carte food and drink options, picking up a super-delicious tri-tip beef sandwich and apple juice (like a man).  As Phillies batting practice concluded, a man sat down in front of me, but moved one spot to his left, saying that he figured he'd give me a good view since he didn't anticipate the people next to him showing up.  With that cordial introduction, he asked me what brought me there (I was obviously wearing a Phillies shirt), and I found out he was a college scout that had done some special projects for the Padres, including assessing how their pitching staff was struggling because their deliveries were elongated when they threw breaking balls versus fastballs.  He also spent some time talking to a man down the row, who it turned out he was the high school pitching coach of Cole Hamels' (that night's starter, who hails from the area).  It was the first really intellectually stimulating baseball conversation I had the whole trip.

Eventually, a pair of middle-aged couples sat next to me and introduced themselves to me as well (man, these Californians sure don't have a fear of strangers).  They explained to me that the particular seat I was in is almost always filled with a random person (and often an opposing fan), because the season-ticket-holder who has the seat just had a kid and barely comes to the games, and he sells the ticket on Stubhub for way below market value.  I spoke with a few of them in differing amounts about what brought me out there, what I did for a living, how I reminded them of so-and-so's son, the fact that the Padres were done once the Phillies scored two runs, and how fast Domonic Brown looked running the bases (I assured them it wasn't indicative of his overall skill).  It was a very pleasant night at the ballpark, and my seat offered me a great vantage point not only of the game but also of the very aesthetically-pleasing park itself.  PETCO may be my favorite stadium I've been to, when you consider the pre-game accessibility, the clean, cuisine-rich concourse, and the (previously unmentioned) fact that it's right in the middle of a nice area with plenty of bars and restaurants and also right near the water.  Sure, on my way home I had to cross the street to avoid getting any closer to the shirtless luchador with the Shake Weight, but what's a city without it's wackjobs?

Experience Rank: 1st

Thursday, September 18th -- Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

I had a little time before taking the train up to Anaheim, so I met up with an old camp friend, Max, who grew up and currently lives in San Diego.  We had brunch and he showed me around town, including the unfairly-wealthy-and-beach-adjacent Coronado Island, where he went to high school.  Then I got to ride the Pacific Surfliner Amtrak train up the coast, which glides between beaches and hills and more picturesque towns.  The whole coast is really just the opposite of what your opinion of New Jersey is, except that there are beaches in both places.

I got to Anaheim with 3 hours until the Angels game, but the train station was across the parking lot from the stadium, and my hotel was about a 20-minute walk away.  That seems short in theory, but it was so ridiculously sunny and dry that it felt like I was part of some kind of Biblical tale.  When I eventually got to the hotel, I collapsed for 20 minutes, then walked right back to where I came from, but this time without the stupid perfectly-packed bag.  On the way back I took the Santa Ana "River" Trail, which was really just an empty road on the banks of a dried-up river.  So maybe I'm not in the Bible, I'm in Holes.  Alex Xela, at your service.

I'm going to be a little more brief this time around, because this game experience was a bit of a bummer.  First of all, the Angels had clinched a playoff berth the night before, so they benched everyone that matters (most notably Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and Jered Weaver).  The only thing that made this OK was that Felix Hernandez was pitching, so I knew that there was a guaranteed 10 strikeouts and a nontrivial shot at a no-hitter against a AAA lineup.  Second of all, my seats were the farthest from the field of any game I had previously been to, in the middle upper deck just past first base.  Third of all, I was surrounded by boring families that offered me nothing close to the conversation fodder that previous games had.

I watched the Falcons destroy the Bucs on a stadium bar TV before the game while I ate a massive plate of loaded nachos, then walked around the concourse past the fake rock formations and watched the first two innings from the outfield.  Angels Stadium is one of the older stadiums in the league as well, but it has been maintained in a much more compelling fashion than the Coliseum (although this is obviously made easier by being able to support just one team / sport).  There are two-story Angels hats and an Angels Mickey Mouse statue outside the gates, a Trout Farm section down the line in left field, and all those fake rock formations in center field that make it so that 80% of the seats are between the two foul poles on the foul side.  Fortunately, Felix did in fact strike out 11 over 7 innings, but he got the no-decision as the Mariners scored a few runs late and I got to watch broke-off hat Fernando Rodney do his whole arrow-shooting routine after notching the save for the M's.  Then I walked back to my hotel as clearly the only person going that direction, indicating to me that my hotel wasn't really meant to be walking distance.

Experience Rank: 7th

Yes, I had a good time around LA for three days after this, but that's sort of outside the jurisdiction of this blog.  I should also note that I was able to finish the book while waiting for my red eye flight to take off from LA Sunday night, so I just barely squeezed that bad boy in.  It definitely dovetailed well with my trip, both providing some assurance that other people do these kinds of things and assurance that my trip wasn't anywhere close to aversive like driving 16 hours to get to a game the next day would be.  I'm really just fine with taking my whole life to get to all these places, because it will afford me the chance to see the cities around the stadiums and perhaps see them in different contexts with different people.

Anyone wanna join for the Midwest leg?


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