Major League Baseball – Let’s go Astros!

When the chance to watch a baseball game in Houston came up, I jumped at it. Experiencing something so traditionally American, as well as enjoying an afternoon of entertainment made for an enticing invitation. It wasn’t until I was sitting in my seat, snapping pictures of the highly manicured green field that I realised it counted towards my Life List goals as well – watching sports live.

The thing about baseball is, it’s long and there’s no way of predicting when it will finish. When you go to see a football match, you know exactly how long you’re going to be there. Two forty-five minute halves, an interval midway through, and a couple of minutes here or there for injury time. Job done. With baseball, you have no clue how long it’s going to take so you have to come at it with a different approach.

It’s more of a social gathering, you know you’re probably in it for the long haul, and can get up to get snacks or visit the rest rooms whenever you need. Your attention can flit around and doesn’t have to be on the action the entire time because, let’s face it, the action is few and far between. Of nine innings, only four had runs in them. The sparse nature of such results meant that when there were decent hits or a flurry of action, it was really exciting to watch.

I’m also impressed because these guys, particularly those in the outer field, don’t have to do very much, but when they do, they have to be on it within seconds. Quick reactions, and intense concentration are required, even though the game is a slow process.

I absolutely loved it. I was with a handful of other people, some of whom departed halfway through to go and watch the England World Cup match instead. The rest stuck it out and said afterwards that it grew on them. I was hooked almost instantly. It made so much more sense seeing the game in real life than it has done in the past when I’ve watched it on TV, and we had such great seats that we could see all that was going on.

It also helps a lot to have a team to cheer for. We were rooting for the Houston Astros as they played against the visiting Tampa Bay Rays. Cheering for the good hits on our side, and groaning when our guys were caught out made it all the more interesting. We won, as well, which made it even more special.

The Astros have a great mascot, a green alien called Orbit. I’ve seen mascots with really the wrong attitude but he was very funny. He ribbed some of the players as they did their stretches, and went up into the crowd to sit with people and watch the game. They even caught him on Kiss-cam.

The big screen was full of little sections and commercials, this prize brought to you by so and so, and this section courtesy of someone else. It was loud and there were little musical chimes played occasionally to rile up the crowd. There was also a sing-a-long halfway through “Deep in the Heart of Texas” but I wasn’t too bothered about that.

Talking of singing, I found the National Anthem very moving. I’ve scoffed a bit about this in the past, the sheer volume of patriotism at US sporting events, but when you’re there, and the whole crowd around you are so focused on this one song, well, it gets to you.

When I was talking to Mr C about my visit to the Minute Maid Park, he asked how it compared to the football. I said it was better. The atmosphere is welcoming and less intense, the action is great, and once you have someone to cheer for, you can really get into the game. I loved it, and as I tweeted at the time, I wish I could go back every week.

Aegon International tennis at Eastbourne

With a trip to Brighton already on the cards, a need to add another sport to my Life List endeavour, and a timely reminder from the fabulous Lou, I found myself clutching tickets to the penultimate day of the Aegon International competition in Eastbourne. I made a slight error in entering the Devonshire Park grounds round the back, rather than the main entrance, which means when I was later in search of the ticket booths, I was too late to snap up any Centre Court tickets.

That was the only downside to the day, and I’ll start with that now to get it out the way. With all the cheers and clapping and noises coming from Centre Court, and the fact that all the semi-final matches for the singles competition were taking place there, I think I missed out.

eastbourne-tennis-katy-dunneI had tickets for Court 1, and the action there didn’t start until 1pm, so I spent the first portion of the day touring the outer courts and seeing what was going on there. I got caught up in a match that was part of the Maureen Connelly Challenge Trophy, featuring some junior girls – GBR versus USA. The first match I saw featured Brit Katy Dunne against Taylor Townsend.

It was really interesting seeing the sport played live compared to watching it on TV. This particular match being on a smaller outside court, the first thing I realised was you can’t blink because there are no replays. When you watch on TV, the players make it look effortless, swooshing about the court this way and that and crafting together a great game to win the point.

In real life, you can see the effort that is being put in – particularly these juniors when just trying to return a serve! You can see up close how much every point means to the player, even those that don’t really… well, matter is the wrong word, but you know, losing a point returning serve, that’s quite ┬ánormal. There was a moment where one of Katy’s shots went long and she swore really loudly. It was surprising, because we’re mostly shielded from that via the medium of TV.

Anyway, Katy won that match, and it was about time for the action on Court 1 to begin, so I made my way to my seat. It was a ladies’ doubles match, and doubles isn’t really my thing but it was still more interesting for seeing it played live. The wind was causing havoc with the serves, and a plastic bag blew on court at one point, but otherwise the match was without incident.

A few things I thought were interesting in this tournament – the doubles partners could request their coach to come jogging out on court and chat to them. There was also a “deciding point – receiver’s choice” thing instead of deuce that I didn’t quite understand. When the pair took one set each, they went straight to a ten-point tiebreak. I’m not sure why they couldn’t have played a third set, but I wasn’t too bothered. The people behind me were very annoyed though, complaining vehemently through the entire tiebreak.

I was quite glad when the doubles was over though. There’s far too much pausing between points to discuss tactics.

eastbourne-tennis-doubles-chatter

There was an hour to kill before the mens’ doubles final so I went back out to peruse the outer courts and watched another Maureen Connelly match. This time, the GBR girl was being coached by Judy Murray – who I was ashamed to admit:

eastbourne-tennis-judy-murray

Overall, it was a good day out, but I think I made all the rookie errors under the sun. (Actually, I made an error with the sun too. Planned for cold and rain and boredom. Did not plan for sunshine, and ended up with a burnt nose.) I abandoned my good seat by the first Maureen Connelly match to go in search of Centre Court tickets, found they were sold out and returned to find the match suddenly very popular and all the good seats taken. I should have thought about the order of play a bit more carefully, I hadn’t realised this was so near the end of the tournament so that all the best matches would be on Centre rather than any other courts.

I definitely want to go again, the nature of the tournament is that there are famous enough people there, without there being the epic crowds and pressure that comes from Wimbledon. It’s right up my street! I really enjoyed my day, but next year I will have to plan things better – perhaps even try a couple of days to get the most out of it. I also need to rethink the camera situation. I was more than cautious about running out of battery on my iPhone, and whilst I had the Lumix, tennis appears to be more of a “big zoom lens” kind of sport. Once you’ve got the atmosphere, you need the close-ups otherwise all the pictures end up looking very similar.

I have to go to some more tennis anyway, there’s an outstanding “see a top ten player” item on the Life List still to complete.

Premier League Football – From cheering to freezing and everything in between

As with most of my Life List items, if you’d told me I would be doing them a year ago, I would have thought you were crazy. On Saturday evening, I found myself in a stadium with more than 37,000 other people, cheering on Aston Villa as they scored the winning goal. Well, they might not all have been cheering for Villa, but you get what I’m saying.

A football match.

Madness.

The Life List item in question is to watch ten sports live, and the first of the as-yet-undecided lineup was a Premier League football match. I’ve never been to any football match before and I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I’d chosen the event to report on as part of my writing course as well, but I have more details about that side of things over on Sidepodcast.

Here, I’ll tell you all about the panic attack I had walking to the stadium itself. Fun!

It’s probably worth starting at the beginning, why I chose Villa. Essentially, it was because they had the only website I could understand. I had sort of earmarked Birmingham as the area I wanted to go to, I like it there. That still leaves a choice of about four teams in the Premier League. I sort of wanted to visit West Brom but only because I know Frank Skinner is a fan. They, and Birmingham City, both have really bad sites though, and as a complete newbie, I couldn’t understand where to get tickets from. One of the sites I looked at had an entire section of ticket news with no clear indication of how to buy. Here, read about tickets but you can’t have any!

So, Villa had a nice website, easy to use, easy to buy, and they have quite fun colours. Sold.

Next up, the story takes a turn for the worse, and it involves parking. Driving to Birmingham is easy peasy, surrounded as it is by motorways. There’s not a lot of parking around the Aston Villa grounds though, and signposts are essentially non-existant. We saw plenty of signs saying there were parking restrictions on a match day, but nothing with the more useful information of where you CAN park.

We located a school that was hosting as many cars as was possible to squeeze into the small playground, and thankfully got the second to last spot. That was after driving round and round the tiniest of lanes, facing off the same fire engine twice, and getting stuck behind a bus resulting in a three-maybe-four-or-five-point-turn. It’s fair to say I was quite stressed by the time I exited the car, and stomped through the streets asking the heavens who in their right mind puts a fire station in the middle of a housing estate.

We ended up being five minutes late for the match, which was partly due to my altercations with the emergency services, and partly because we approached the stadium on the wrong side and had to trot all the way round to the opposite grandstand.

As we were walking round one corner, we could peek at the people sitting in the higher tiers, and they were all singing their chants as one. A great swell of voices washed out of the stadium, and I was pretty sure I couldn’t breathe. I’m not so good with the crowds, you see.

Still, I had the tickets, and I was determined not to be a person who isn’t good with the crowds, so we marched on. Finally we got to the right bit, and were allowed in. We had to go through the late entry gate and everything.

Thankfully, I had purchased seats relatively near the front of the pitch. Not only did this mean a rather stunning view, but it also meant I couldn’t see the thousands of people behind me. We were maybe five minutes late, and it was only another ten minutes or so when the first and only goal of the match was scored.

The first I knew about it was that I couldn’t see anymore. I had blinked, and suddenly everyone around me was jumping up and down and hugging each other. Even Mr C had seen it happen and was on his feet. I felt like a bit of a loser for not being able to keep up, but the happiness of everyone around was quite catching, so it didn’t really matter.

Clearly we were amongst Villa fans, so we immediately assumed this identity as well. It was easy in the first half, when Villa did well, but a lot harder in the second half when a) all the action was at the other end of the pitch, and b) Villa were playing so defensively it was painful viewing.

Everyone around us was an expert as well. Behind us there were a couple of men with beautiful Birmingham accents telling the manager exactly what he was doing wrong. They were quite calm about it, analysing the game as it went along. In front, some of the fans were a bit less eloquent with swearing and hand gestures and all the booing they could possibly manage. I did feel pretty uncomfortable around such negativity, but I know it is equal with their passion for the sport, so I can’t necessarily fault them for it. It also paved the way for one of my favourite moments.

I didn’t quite see what happened (because I am a loser, remember) but it was either a Villa player was toppled, or was being blamed for knocking down a Manchester City chap. The grandstands nearest the incident, filled with home fans, all stood, waving their arms about at the referee. As I watched, the reaction rippled outwards until it was covering half the stadium – a Mexican wave of indignation. It was beautiful. And terrifying.

I’m eternally grateful that Villa won, because it was worrying enough hearing the people moan when their team were winning. I would hate to have been sat in the midst of a losing mood. At the end, the crowds filed out to choruses of Hi Ho Silver Lining, with the appropriate words replaced with Aston Villa. The mascots danced along, and it was all quite jolly. (Actually, I have to say the female mascot was unbelievable. Celebrating a goal is one thing, trying to put off a player taking a corner is just plain rude.)

We absolutely froze watching the match. I knew it was going to be cold, given that it was after dark in January, but the temperature dropped rapidly for the last 40 minutes or so. By the end, we could barely feel our fingers to write notes or take pictures. I am astounded that anyone can visit the football on a regular basis. It’s not always that cold, I know, but I’d wager it’s more often cold than it is warm.

After the match, I wanted a piece of merchandise, so we bought Villa gloves that I can use when I go running, and a programme for the game. The programme is plastered in Darren Bent, which seems fitting, seeing as he scored the winning goal.

I really enjoyed my visit to the Premier League, despite how freakishly stressful it all was. It’s not something I would want to do on a regular basis, and I’m not sure I would seek out another football match as something to do on an afternoon, but it was still brilliant, and I’m glad I did it. I’m glad I didn’t give in when I saw that fire engine barrelling towards me for the second time. I’m glad I didn’t let that sneak peek of the crowds stop me from going in.

On Saturday’s Aston Villa vs. Manchester City game, the attendance was 37,315.

One of those was me.

Amazing.