May 21, 2012

If Picasso were an art student today, his instructors would have seen no potential whatsoever in him, and gotten him kicked out of school... but not before suggesting that he pursue a career in accounting, law, or some other generic, high-paying career instead.

May 13, 2012

Shinji Kagawa: The next great hope

This year's German Cup final afforded Shinji Kagawa with quite possibly the biggest platform he has ever been presented during his burgeoning career. A sellout crowd on hand at the Olympiastadion in Berlin; a matchup against Bayern Munich, the most successful club in the nation; an expectant Dortmund fanbase eagerly awaiting their club's first ever league-and-cup double; an adoring legion of fans in his homeland anticipating the kickoff well into the midnight hours. And just for good measure, one of the most iconic managers in football was in attendance, presumably to watch his every move.

The stage had been set for Shinji Kagawa to deliver a spectacular performance -- and deliver, he did.

The Japanese maestro wrote his name on the scoresheet less than three minutes into the match, a slot-home finish after a defensive meltdown from Bayern allowed him to slip past a couple of defenders. He then notched an assist in the latter stages of the first half, sliding in a gorgeous pass to the onrushing Robert Lewandowski, who simply had to poke his effort past the keeper. His fingerprints were also on Dortmund's first goal after the break; his foray inside the Bayern half and layoff to Kevin Grosskreutz eventually led to Lewandowski's second goal of the match (he would get his hat trick in the dying minutes).

It was the perfect sign-off to another superlative season for the Kobe-born playmaker. He had become a household name in the previous season, bagging eight league goals during the first half of the campaign, including a brace in the derby match at Schalke. An ankle injury kept him out for most of the latter half, but the expectations for Kagawa, as well Dortmund, were sky high going into 2011-12.

His response? No less than 18 total goals, with 13 coming in the Bundesliga, plus 11 assists, which easily could have been more. He was an unstoppable force from January to March, tallying eight league goals in nine matches. Those contributions were essential in Dortmund taking home their second straight league title, and after today's emphatic win over Bayern, the first league-and-cup double in club history. All this, from a player who was virtually unknown outside of Japan less than two years ago.

If his first season in Germany was about gaining respect in the football community, his second one was geared toward adding to his reputation, a mission he was wildly successful in completing. It is natural, then, to wonder how much more he is capable of accomplishing in the coming years. He only turned 23 in March, which puts him in an ideal spot as a professional athlete: a bona-fide, established player who is still years away from hitting his prime. Not surprisingly, his future has been a subject of considerable discussion among fans and pundits alike.

Some of the biggest clubs in football have shown an interest in signing him during the summer, most notably Manchester United. In fact, Sir Alex Ferguson made an appearance in Berlin for the match, taking time off from preparing for a potential title-deciding clash against Sunderland the next day. If he was there to watch Kagawa in action -- and it would hardly take an educated guess to arrive at that conclusion, given the rumors -- then he will have left Germany with an indelible impression of the player.

It is still much too early to tell whether Kagawa will be wearing red as we kick off a new campaign in the summer, but very few would argue against his credentials. With his penchant for scoring goals and making decisive passes, plus an innate understanding of where and how an attacking play will unfold, he could very well become an important asset for Sir Alex's side next season.

May 7, 2012

Trip to the Trop: Weekday baseball in St Pete

To say that the Seattle Mariners haven't given their fans (such as myself) much to cheer about in recent years would be a gross understatement. They looked to be well on their way to another dispiriting season when they rolled into St Petersburg for a four-game series against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Being a true glutton for punishment, I decided to travel down for the final two games of the series, taking Thursday off from work in the process. Getting tickets and booking a hotel was easy enough, given the Rays' perennially low attendance and the quietness of downtown St Pete. However, as the adage goes, it's easier to plan for a journey than to actually embark on it; this one was certainly no different. On that note, this is the complete chronicle of my trip to Tropicana Field, broken down into several segments:

Drive to the ballpark

I made the trek down to the Trop for an M's game last August, but that was for a Saturday night game; it was a very smooth drive to St Pete and back, so much so that I got back to Orlando within two hours of the game (an 8-0 shutout loss for Seattle). This time, I would have to try to avoid the notorious rush hour traffic in downtown Tampa. I left town at 3pm, hoping I wouldn't get caught up in the crunch... suffice to say, that didn't happen. At all.

I got to the heart of Tampa just before 5pm; the ensuing backup at the infamous Malfunction Junction put a grinding halt to what had been a nice and tidy ride. No sooner than I navigated my way through the interchange, I ran into an even bigger problem: more traffic flowing in from downtown. In fact, that was even worse than what I saw at the intersection, because the gridlock lasted all the way until the last exit before the bridge, which might as well have been the promised land at that point. All told, it took a full hour before I finally reached the Pinellas side of the bay.

On the flip side, going through Pinellas was the equivalent of rolling through a county road in Kansas. People even drove above the speed limit on the fast lane, which was a pleasant surprise. After checking in at my hotel, I hopped back on the car to get to the Trop, which I figured would be easy enough to get to from there.

There was only one problem: I forgot that downtown St Pete had so many one-way streets. At one point, I made a left turn into oncoming traffic, which must have scared everyone on that street, just as it did for me; fortunately, there was a back alley immediately to my right, and I managed to wiggle my way through before becoming just another statistic. That was the last of the driving adventures on the day, as I finally got to the ballpark almost 30 minutes before the first pitch.

The peculiar thing I noticed about St Pete was that outside of the Trop, there were hardly any signs that a baseball team existed in town. Aside from small flags flying outside of shops, hotels, and on some light posts downtown, it was almost as if the Rays weren't part of the city's fabric. I don't know whether that's down to the team not being adept at marketing themselves (something I heard from Rays fans at the game), but I thought it was odd that a team that good was just about invisible in their own backyard.

Tropicana Field

Preface to this section of the post: Tropicana Field is a truly bizarre sporting venue.

From the outside, it resembles an enormous circus tent with a roof that's about to collapse on itself. Apparently, they designed it that way for air-conditioning purposes, which actually seems like a smart piece of planning. The downside, of course, is that it still looks like the largest circus building in the world, instead of a Major League baseball stadium.

The definitive feature of the ballpark, by far, are those infamous catwalks. They provide the support system for the roof, and are also home to the lighting system -- you kinda need to keep the field lit when you play in a closed dome. It's still a wonder that any player could track fly balls in that ballpark though, taking into account the looming catwalks and the light-colored ceiling. Thankfully, they're not so dangerous that players and fans could be killed or otherwise maimed -- aside from a few light bulbs being shattered on occasions, but that's okay.

To the Rays' credit, they've redesigned the interior of the Trop so that it's no longer an utterly soulless atmosphere vacuum. The concourses actually look respectable, and the views of the game are decent depending on where you sit. That said, there's only so much anybody can do to make it a venue worth visiting up to 80-90 times a year. To bring up an old saying; no matter how long a log stays in the water, it doesn't become a crocodile. 

Wednesday night game 

The Mariners had dropped the first two games of the series, losing 3-2 in the extras on Monday night, then following it up with a miserable 3-1 loss on Tuesday. The same old failings on offense were there for everyone to see on those two nights, although, to be fair, they are a young, rebuilding team (I would chime in with a comment about this being our third rebuilding project of the last decade, but then I don't want to sound too snarky).

The players were already warming up by the I got to my seats. The view was surprisingly good considering I got the cheapest available ticket on Stubhub:

As expected, the Rays fans made up the overwhelming majority of the crowd, although there were a fair few Mariners fans in the house as well. We had reasons to cheer early on, as Kyle Seager (one of those promising young players) hit a three-run blast in his first at-bat. The lead only lasted until the fourth inning though, and the home team was ahead soon enough.

Seager hit another one out in the top of the sixth to tie the game at 4-4, but the Rays responded with a solo shot of their own in the latter half of the inning; Mike Saunders had a chance to rob Luke Scott of the homer, but just couldn't get the ball inside the glove. I didn't get to see the play because I was in the process of moving down (location seen at the pic on the very top), though it's probably for the best that I missed it. That ended up being the winning run for Tampa Bay... these are the kind of breaks that teams on a hot streak always seem to get.

One thing I noticed about the game atmosphere: certain Rays fans appear to have adopted the vuvuzela as their favorite noisemaker. It seems inexplicable that an "instrument" associated with soccer would make its way to baseball in America, but there it is. They actually drowned out the cowbells, which have become the symbol of the Rays fanbase. Well, not so much drown out, but overpower them in terms of noise; those horns really reverberated inside the closed confines of the Trop.

At any rate, as painstaking as it was to actually get to the ballpark, going back to the hotel following the game was a comparative breeze. The traffic coming out of the Trop was eerily light; not surprising, considering the official attendance was 9,837, and was probably closer to 8,000. It probably took about 15 minutes for me to walk out of the stadium, pull out of the parking lot, and walk back into my room. Either way, it beat having to park far out, or even having to walk through the unfamiliar streets of St Pete at night, while wearing a visiting team's shirt.

Thursday afternoon game

It's easier to move down the aisles in baseball than in any other sport; even more so if the crowd is so sparse the seats up front are begging to be taken. With another small crowd on hand, I decided to get a good as possible from the beginning, despite buying a ticket for the same seat as the night before. The key is to walk through an unchecked entrance, one not being looked after by an usher. There were a number of open gates down by the bullpen on both sides, and I took the liberty of taking a seat behind the Mariners bullpen.

About 15 minutes before the first pitch, a group of what looked like college-aged kids took a seat in a row behind me. They were from the Hillsborough side of the bay, and made the trip down after finishing their final exams at USF. We had a good banter going the rest of the game -- they were particularly impressed that I made the trip for this game, albeit to cheer on the visitors. Even though they became increasingly drunk as the game wore on, they were a pretty fun bunch to be around; cheers, peeps.

As they did in the first game, the Mariners jumped out to an early lead, going up 2-0 after RBIs from Mike Carp and the much-maligned Justin Smoak. But just as they did in the previous game, the Rays also clawed back immediately, taking a 4-2 lead after two innings, with Jeff Keppinger and Desmond Jennings providing the big hits (by the way, if Jennings isn't a household name yet, then he will be by the end of the year).

Ichiro drove in Seattle's third run in the fifth inning, but they would be shut out the rest of the way. Final score: Rays 4-3 Mariners, and a four-game sweep for the home team. The silver lining is that #51 looked like he was close to being back to his former self, even at his age. He and King Felix are still very much the team's biggest draws, so the M's definitely need the two of them to be at their best, even if the rest of the team can be unwatchable at times.

As for the crowd and the atmosphere: it was vastly different from the night before. The fans inside the stadium seemed younger on average, and by extension, more inebriated and boisterous. There was a group of college kids near the bullpen that let the Mariners relievers have it all night, even after they had been called to the mound ("Looooooogieeeeee" toward Lucas Luetge was my personal favorite). It was definitely more lively and exciting than the previous game, though the official attendance was still well short of 12,000.

With the series over, perhaps mercifully on the Mariners' behalf, I hit the road for the return trip to Orlando. It was a fantastic day off for me, and if my bank account allows me, I'll definitely look into visiting again in July, when they return to town for a weekend tilt. Hopefully they'll actually win a game if I do go -- I'm now 0-4 when watching the M's play in person.