Thursday, March 12, 2009

Tour 2009: Air Canada Centre

All photos of the Hockey Hall of Fame and the Air Canada Centre available on Flickr.

How can you go to Canada in March and do nothing hockey-related? We just had to see a Maple Leafs game and the Hockey Hall of Fame on our last full day in Toronto. The Hall of Fame was only a few minutes' walk from our hostel and we got there just before 2. This gave us about 3 hours to view over a century of hockey history. The Hall of Fame building was really cool, it is housed in an old bank - most of the displays are below grade, but the main bank building houses the Stanley Cup, the members of the Hall of Fame, and all of the other player trophies. The original Stanley Cup is even inside what used to be the bank's vault. The Hall of Fame's special display this year was a tribute to the Montreal Canadiens' centennial season, and had player equipment and jerseys of great Canadiens, and there was a video playing about some of the great Montreal teams. There was an area dedicated to international play, an area dedicated to hockey legends including Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky, the Hall of Records, and a special display dedicated to every team past and present. It was not as extensive as the Baseball Hall of Fame, but still very cool and worth seeing. One of the coolest things for me was seeing all of the equipment players used back in the day. Goalie masks didn't even exist until the invention of the slapshot, and looked very crude and uncomfortable up until about 20 years ago. Seeing some of the protection (or lack thereof) and sticks that the players used gave me a new appreciation for the skill and toughness that hockey requires.

After the Hall of Fame, we of course hit the store, and then we grabbed a bite at a place called St. Louis Wings & Ribs. A general rule of thumb - any place with a city in its title other than the city it's in is probably not going to have very good food. I really wanted to believe that Toronto could make good St. Louis style ribs, but they fell short. At least we got to relax for awhile, and it was the cheapest meal of the trip, so no complaints. We then headed to the arena a little after 6 for the puck drop of 7:30.

The outside of the Air Canada Centre left a little to be desired, and entering the building felt a little like going into a hotel lobby, at least where we went in...there could have been some grand entrance we missed. But the arena itself was pretty decent - nice and chilly like a hockey game should be. We were starting to feel the effects of our week of heavy drinking, even though Canadian beer does not seem to give you a hangover, so we stuck with souvenir sodas (with free refills!). A little side note: in Toronto, beer served in plastic cups comes with a lid, kind of like a sippy-cup. I thought that this was just a Rogers Centre querk, but The Hangar also served beer this way. You feel really stupid drinking beer with a lid, but is actually a good idea if you think about it. And if you're going to pay $9 for a beer, it may as well come with some anti-spill protection.

Our seats were high up and provided a great view of game action, but not so much of the rest of the arena, so I had to take pictures of the arena and all the banners from a lower vantage point. The Maple Leafs have 17 retired player numbers and 13 Stanley cups in their 90-year history, both feats I can barely fathom. Going to watch a hockey game in Toronto is kind of like watching a baseball game in New York, or a football game in Green Bay. No matter how the team is doing, people are very passionate about the team, the games are always a sellout, and all people talk about in the offseason is the team's chances for next year. I always overheard people at the Rogers Centre talking about the Leafs or checking their Blackberries for the Leafs score. It's a little bit harder to cheer for the Leafs these days, as they are pretty horrible, but it was a great experience to be a part of the national sport of Canada.

The Maple Leafs fell again on this night, 4-1 to the Tampa Bay Lightning. I don't remember the last time I've seen a home hockey team play that bad. They were horrible on defense and on the power play, and they have absolutely no players that shoot the puck decently. I've kind of adopted the Maple Leafs as my favorite NHL team since Milwaukee doesn't have a pro team, so it was hard to watch. I'm sure if they still had Mats Sundin, they might have at least lost 4-3. Lee Stempniak got the Leafs out to an early lead with his 13th goal of the season, but the 'Ning scored 4 unanswered in the final two periods. A lot of the crowd left after Ryan Malone put home his 24th of the year on a centering pass from Cory Murphy.

After the game, we stopped off for one final drink in Toronto, this time at a place near our hostel called Flatiron & Firkin. I think this might be the first time I ever fly home to Milwaukee, and it will be warmer there than the city I was in! Our flights leave 4 hours apart, so Erik will have a significant amount of time to kill at the airport bar. Another great Pete & Erik trip! Our next scheduled Tour 2009 trip is to see a game in the final season of the Metrodome, so stay tuned. 25 days 'til Opening Day!

arena stats and rankings:
aesthetics - 2 (stuffed between expressway and Union Station)
view to ice - 7 (good view to ice from up high, but not of rest of arena)
surrounding area - 7 (downtown, Union Station)
food variety - 6
nachos - 5 (standard corn chips & cheese)
beer - 7 (bonus points for lids, variety of Canadian beer, and different sizes; points subtracted for price)
vendor price - 5 (comparitively to rest of Toronto, not too bad)
ticket price - 1 ($100 for seats 10 rows from the top)
atmosphere - 7 (not as rowdy as I expected, but they were playing the Lightning)
walk to arena - 7 (downtown is nice, but you have to walk through a shady tunnel)
parking proximity - n/a
concourses - 5
team shop - 7

best food - Tim Horton's
most unique arena feature - the suites, entry sequence
best jumbotron feature - expose on youth hockey players
best intermission feature - Maple Leafs Elvis & Superman toss t-shirts into crowd

starting goalies - Karri Ramo (TB) v. Martin Gerber (TOR)
Three Stars of the game - (1) Martin St. Louis - TB, (2) Steven Stamkos - TB, (3) Lee Stempniak - TOR
opponent - Tampa Bay Lightning
attendance - 19209
score - 4-1 L
Admirals score - 3-2 W (3/11)

Tour 2009: WBC Pool C Championship

All photos of day 5 in Toronto available on Flickr.

We left the hostel around 1:30 on Wednesday to make a couple of pre-game stops. Again it was raining as we strolled into the nearby St. Lawrence Market. It was like the public market in Milwaukee, except much bigger. There were quite a few seafood vendors, an Asian place, some meat and cheese shops, produce, and even clothing in the basement. It was very tempting to get some local southeastern Canada oysters, but we went to Hooters for lunch instead. After about 15 minutes of walking around, we headed out.

The downtown Toronto Hooters was adverstised as a "foul ball from the Rogers Centre," and it was actually very close to the ballpark. It was a quite the departure from Hooters in the states, where all that is on television is college basketball or Sportscenter. In Ontario, bars have typically been featuring hockey and curling 24/7, either highlights or a game. Since there was no hockey or WBC game on on a Wednesday afternoon, we were subjected to three hours of Premier League soccer and curling as we took back some wings and a couple pitchers of Labatts. Then around 5 PM, as the really hot evening shift waitresses rolled in, we reluctantly left to head to the ballpark.

Today was the 6th and final game of Pool C play. It was mainly a game for seeding purposes; it really didn't mean anything since both teams were already in, and the United States played that way. Manager Davey Johnson was managing this game as if it were a spring traning game, just trying to get pitchers their work in, as was most evident when he left in Jeremy Guthrie for over two innings despite his horrible effort. Ryan Braun and Gregor Blanco had another 3 hits each, and Blanco definitely gets my vote for Pool C MVP, if there was such a thing. Victor Zambrano pitched very well in four innings for Venezuela, and Ted Lilly was pulled after only 38 pitches but also looked good. Henry Blanco also had a homerun for Team Venezuela, and Chris Ianetta hit yet another homefun for the US that was actually foul. Overall it was fun game and a fun time at the Rogers Centre. We met a lot of interesting people and are very glad we went. We were kind of disappointed with the poor attendance though, so I wouldn't look for this tournament to travel back to Canada for awhile.

After the game, we concluded the evening as we have been every night - 3 pitchers of Molsons at Gabbys. We said our goodbyes to our friend Mike, who met us out again, and our favorite (or "favourite" in Canadian) bartender at Gabbys, whose name is Japanese and I don't remember. What I do remember was that she bought us going-away shots, and all the stories she told us about Toronto athletes she'd hooked up with over the years, including a former Blue Jays infielder (whose identity I will protect since he was married at the time). And to cap the whole night off, we watched Mexico destroy Australia, and some more curling - I will definitely miss Canadian beer and curling & hockey on the tube when I return home. Today is our last day in Toronto, and our attention now switches to hockey as the first round of the WBC concludes. We plan on going to the Hockey Hall of Fame this afternoon, and we have Leafs tickets this evening.

game stats:
starters - Victor Zambrano (VEN) v. Ted Lilly (USA)
opponent - Venezuela v. USA
time of game - 3:08
attendance - 12358
score - 5-3 VEN
Brewers score that day - 6-2 L

USA, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Netherlands

Erik - 6
Peter - 6

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Tour 2009: WBC Pool C, Games 4 & 5

All photos of days 3 & 4 in Toronto available on Flickr.

On Monday, we enjoyed another late start to the day. Much like Milwaukee, there seems to be not a lot to do on during the winter here in Toronto except go to the bar and attend sporting events. But, we decided to make the most of our time by researching some burger joints and breweries we could visit during the week. And so, our first stop of the day on Monday was a half-hour walk east through the villages of Corktown and Riverside to a place we saw online called Dangerous Dan's, which supposedly had the best burger in the city. Unfortunately, it was closed on Mondays, but it was still a nice walk on a sunny day. We then moved back west to Mill St Brewery, in an area of the city called the Distillery District. Mill St has been voted the best brewpub in the city the last two years and we were excited to tour it, but we were again shot down - only weekend tours. At this point we had been walking for about an hour, so we decided to stay and have lunch anyways, and between the two of us we sampled almost every beer they had. The structure itself was very cool; the area reminded me of the Strip District in Pittsburgh a little bit, all of the bulidings are old distilleries and breweries, and Mill St itself is housed in the building of a former brewery. We also met a cool guy there from Chicago, Mike, who was in town for the WBC as well. He seemed to be just as into baseball as we were and it was fun talking with him - he was even going to fly to Miami after Toronto and go to the next round. We exchanged numbers and agreed to meet up later. But for now, it was nearing gametime, and so we stumbled out the brewery and headed to the ballpark.

Todays ballgame was an elimination game between Italy and Canada, both losers from their first games. The crowd was about the same as Sunday night's game, with most of the sparse crowd being Canadians, obviously. Italy came out of the gates strong, tallying single runs in each of the first four frames, and blanked Canada in the first three before the starting pitcher Serafini ran into trouble in the 4th. Canada seemed to look past this game and were flat all game, with a lot of poor at-bats and lazy plays on defense. There was a play in the 4th where an Italian player hustled from 1st to 2nd on a routine groundball to short and beat the throw to 2nd, and it was plays like that made me think Italy would pull it out - and they did, 6-2. Justin Morneau and Jason Bay were the stars for Canada with 6 of the team's 7 hits and both of their RBI. Chris Denorfia was 4-4 with 3 doubles and 2 RBI for Team Italia, and also made a spectacular diving catch in center field. Jason Grilli faired much better than in the Venezuela game and got the 3.1 inning save. After the game, we met up with Mike at Wayne Gretzky's bar and watched Mexico pound South Africa.

Tuesday was attempt #2 at finding a burger joint, and this time we were successful. The place is called Craft Burger and was only a few blocks northwest of the ballpark. It was just a little hole-in-the-wall 10-seat kind of place that just served great handmade burgers. The onion rings and fries were some of the best I've ever had, and although we thought the burgers were a little overcooked, overall a place I'd recommend to any wayward travelers. After burgers we thought about catching the ferry to Toronto Island, but we decided that that was probably like taking the ferry to Washington Island in Door County in March - probably pretty boring. Instead, we just walked around the lake some more. Along the way we found a place called the Beer Store that's pretty much the national liquor store chain of Ontario, and a lakefront walkway called the Spadina Wavedeck that was pretty crazy. We ended our walk with a stop at the Loose Moose on Front St. for a pint, and then it was off to the next game.

This day's game was an early 5 PM first pitch, another elimination between Italy and Venezuela. The crowd was even smaller today, but it was okay because this allowed us a greater chance of getting a ball during BP. Things looked grim at first because Italia does not have any power, but one of the Venezuelan coaches threw us each an offical WBC ball, and we were very pleased. As for game action, Italy's Monday night magic seemed to run out as they got dominated 10-1 by Venezuela. Things were at a stalemate the first three innings, but then for some reason Italy went to its bullpen in the 4th despite their starter giving up only one hit. This was when the wheels fell off for Italia, as Venezuela got 4 runs in the 4th and hit 4 homeruns in the 5th. Bobby Abreu, Miguel Cabrera, Jose Lopez, and Ramon Hernandez all went deep for Team Venezuela, and Magglio Ordonez finally ended his 0-for-tournament streak with a couple hits. No one really stood out for Italia, as they ran through 8 pitchers and there were a lot of player substitutions, but Brewers' catcher Vinny Rottino did get a hit in his final at bat.

Today is the Pool C championship, and we have another Pete & Erik tour staple to cross off - find the local Hooters.

game stats:
starters - (4) Doug Serafini (ITA) v. Vince Perkins (CAN); (5) Adam Ottavino (ITA) v. Enrique Gonzalez (VEN)
opponent - (4) Italy v. Canada, (5) Italy v. Venezuela
time of game - 3:36 ; 3:04
attendance - 12411, 10450
score - 6-2 ITA, 10-1 VEN
Brewers score that day - 8-6 L

Game 6: 3/11 @ 630, USA v. Venezuela

Erik - 5
Peter - 5

Monday, March 9, 2009

Tour 2009: World Baseball Classic, Pool C

All photos of days 1 & 2 in Toronto available on Flickr.

Despite the struggling economy and us both being unemployed, Tour 2009 rolled on on Saturday as we arrived in Canada around 11 AM. Having watched the inaugural 2006 World Baseball Classic on television, we were both very excited to be a part of this world event - our first international Tour Plus trip! Our day on Saturday started with a 5 o'clock wake-up call and a drive down to O'Hare Airport in the Chicago area (thanks for the ride Dad). It became immediately apparent that it wasn't worth it to drive all the way down to O'Hare, and in the future I think I'll take the extra hour sleep and coherently functioning airport over the $100 savings. Erik and I had to book separate flights, since he had to wait to see where in the country he'd be, and we both ended up having to switch terminals. But, after showing my passport to about 37 people and getting cramped on our tin-can sized aircraft, we arrived safely in Toronto. The one part of the flight I expected to be a hassle - the customs agent - was not bad at all, just a lot of routine questions (good thing I left all of my vegetables and alcohol at home).

What we remember the most about our brief 2007 stay in Toronto was that it was very expensive, and that there were cranes everywhere, and we were reminded of these two things right away. It seemed like there was construction EVERYWHERE on the $49 CAD cab ride to our hostel. And not road construction, buildings. And condominiums too, all aesthetically similar, all glass and very tall. Apparently Canada (minus Saskatchewan) is in a recession as well, but it sure didn't feel that way. We had little time to dilly-dally upon checking in, and immediately left for the ballpark for 2 PM first pitch. One good thing as far as cost goes is that the ballpark was a lot closer than we thought it was, only about a 20 minute walk, so that will save us a lot of money on trolly fare this coming week. Walking to the ballpark also allowed us to locate all the bars and restaurants we had to hit at some point, not the least of which is the best and cheapest meal in the city - the $2.50 all-beef street-vendor hot dog carts.

We arrived at Rogers Centre around 12:30 and got to catch a little Team Canada BP from our awesome seats. We have 2nd row outfield seats, right above the home team bullpen, so there will be a lot of potential for catching home runs this week. The stadium was electric, and it was a full house for the first game of Pool C play - USA v. Canada. Not suprisingly, the Canucks outnumbered us by at least 4:1 if not more, and there was a sea of red and maple leafs in the concourses at all times. We checked one of the places we had to eat - Pizza Pizza - off the list right away and grabbed some Canadian beer, and headed back to our seats for the national anthems, and to listen to all of Ontario boo all the American Yankees and Red Sox players during player introductions. Ryan Braun got the start in left for the United States, and we were very excited to see him play right in front of us, despite all of the customary home-team heckling. The United States beat Canada 6-5 in what turned out to be a very rousing and gut-wrenching game. A playoff atmosphere in March, what more can a baseball fan ask for? Brian McCann had 3 RBI, and Adam Dunn and Kevin Youkilis also homered for the US in the victory, and Joey Votto went 4-5 and Russell Jean Martin homered in the loss for Canada. It was a very well played game all around and it made me worry how we would fare against Venezuela, assuming they'd beat Italy - but more on that later.

After the game, we tried to check another place off the list - Wayne Gretzky's restaurant on 99 Blue Jays Way - but it was packed, so we found a little dive bar around the corner, Gabbys, and sat down for a drink before the Italy v. Venezuela game at 8 PM. It is an awesome bar and Erik and I fully intend on trying to become regulars here in a 6-day span. However, there seem about a hundred bars just in the loop between our hostel and the ballpark, more bars than I've even seen in Milwaukee's downtown, so we definitely have some exploring to do. But I digress; at Gabbys we met some interesting people who also were at the game. It seems that whenever Erik and I travel anywhere that we run into strangers who are open to conversation, and since we like to keep to ourselves generally, it is a very welcoming feeling. We met some really cool cats the last time we were here, and we the people at the bar were very talkative with us foreigners. There were the 19-year old kids from Syracuse next to us (drinking age is 19 in Ontario), a bunch of people from Buffalo behind us, and some people from Detroit to our right. The 19-year old kids got pretty hammered in the 90 minutes we were there and it was very entertaining watching them trying to pawn their Italy/Venezuela tickets off to anybody and everybody for $1. A couple of Molsons later and it was already time for Game 2.

We hit the team store right away when we got to Game 2, as we figured the crowd would be smaller at that game. I bought a ball, program, Team Canada cap, and an old school Blue Jays jersey, and a gift for my brother, and Erik got a ball and a patch. Later during Team Italy BP, Erik and I definitely started to feel the effects of waking up at 5 and drinking all day, and we struggled to stay focused on Venezuela's rout of Italy. We rooted hard for Team Italy - Brewer minor leaguers Mark DiFelice and Vinny Rottino were the starting battery - and they actually hung in there until about the 5th, but then Italy's bullpen took over and Venezuela eventually broke through and won the game 7-0. We still had a great time, and even managed to learn the Italian national anthem. The crowd was sparse and diverse for this game - lots of residual Canadians and Americans from Game 1, the lower bowl dominated by Venezuelan fans and flags, and a lot of Tigers fans as the entire Detroit team seemed to be playing for somebody in Pool C. Also, there were a few Italian league players that impressed us that we think should be signed, particularly the right fielder Chiarini who had a booming double and an absolute cannon for an arm.

We were pretty beat and fell asleep fairly quickly when we got back home, aside from some roommate commotion late in the night. We were in a 10-person dorm and we have two particular roommates who snore and one who uses a mining-helmet type light that he wears on his head that is very obnoxious. We finally left the hostel around 1 PM on Sunday and just walked around after grabbing food at an awesome diner we passed the day before, Shopsys. Not a lot was open on a Sunday, so we mostly just walked along the lake, and explored an area called the Harbourfront Centre. It reminded me of Millenium Park in Chicago, only smaller. There was an ice rink there, a theatre, an outdoor amphitheatre a kids play area, a marina, and some stores and bars. It was a typical Erik & Pete day - wake up late, walk around for awhile, see some sites, and then hit the bar by 330. We were the first customers of the day at a marina bar called Wallymagoo's and finally got to try Steam Whistle, a local favorite (it was ok). Soon enough, it was game time again.

Today's game featured the two winners, USA and Venezuela, and first pitch was again at 8 PM. The winner was assured of going on to the second round, so it was a big game. This time the US was the visiting team, so we got to watch some American BP. Ryan Braun and Chris Ianetta in particular were hitting some absolute bombs on every swing, and had I had a mitt I might have caught a couple. The lineup was a little different today - Jimmy Rollins, Curtis Granderson, Mark DeRosa, and Chris Ianetta all got the start. All four contributed in the 15-6 spanking of team Venezuela. It was a bad omen when J-Roll got picked off second in the first inning, but the United States were out in full force all day and got 16 hits off Venezuelan pitching. Starter Armando Gallarraga was ok, but the bullpen was pretty horrible. Venezuela has 4 good starters, but most of their relievers are from the Mexican Leagues, and a guy with a 6+ ERA against major leaguers is going to be a lopsided matchup every time. Braun, Dunn, and Youk homered for America, and Chris Ianetta had a bases-clearing triple in the US 8-run 6th. Carlos Guillen homered, and Bobby Abreu and Gregor Blanco got on base three times each for Venezuela.

After the game, we stopped back at Gabbys for pint and met another group of travelers from Chicago who said they'd stop by our seats at today's game. We also seem to be sitting with the same group of people for every game, so that's very cool. There are a bunch of hilarious Tigers fans behind us, some Yankee and Brewer fans a section over, and some friendly Canadians on our left. Today I'm still waiting for Erik to wake up, and we're going to try and find a brewery that is offering tours before Game 4 at 6:30.

rankings - see 2007 Rogers Centre post
park & game stats:
best food - hot beef sandwich
most unique stadium feature - flags of countries on upper deck
best jumbotron feature - show your team spirit, giveaway trip to Cuba
best between-inning feature - fastest grounds crew in baseball, red/blue/green ball race around the world
field dimensions - 328/400/328
starters - (1) Jake Peavy (USA) v. Johnson (CAN), (2) Carlos Silva (VEN) v. Mark DiFelice (ITA), (3) Armando Galarraga (VEN) v. Roy Oswalt (USA)
opponent - (1) USA v. Canada, (2) Venezuela v. Italy, (3) Venezuela v. USA
time of game - 2:55, 3:00, 3:39
attendance - 42314, 13272, 13094
score - 6-5 USA, 7-0 VEN, 15-6 USA
Brewers score that day - 2-0 W, 7-1 L

Game 4: 3/9 @ 630, Canada v. Italy
Game 5: 3/10 @ 5, Venezuela v. winner of Game 4
Game 6: 3/11 @ 730, USA v. winner of Game 5
Erik - 3
Peter - 3